In-Depth: Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to reauthorize the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program, which provides much-needed resources to state and local law enforcement agencies to conduct forensic analysis of DNA evidence collected from crime scenes, including untested rape kits:
“The Debbie Smith Act has been called the most important anti-rape legislation ever signed into law for good reason; no rape survivor should be made to wait for justice because their local police precinct doesn’t have the resources to test their rape kit. This grant program is vital for local law enforcement and victims of crime across the country. We need to reauthorize this program so that precincts have the resources to process and match DNA evidence, including sexual assault kits, quickly and accurately. The resources from this grant program have enabled law enforcement to make 192,000 DNA matches in criminal cases since 2005. I’m very proud of what this program has accomplished, and I hope that Congress will act quickly to reauthorize it for another five years.”
Original cosponsor Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) adds:
“Too many victims of sexual assault never get the justice they deserve. DNA evidence is often the only way to find and convict abusers, but there is an appalling backlog for processing DNA samples across the country. We need to reduce this backlog in order to swiftly identify and arrest violent predators. Reauthorizing the Debbie Smith Act will provide our prosecutors with essential resources to tackle this backlog and make our communities safer.”
Senate sponsor Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to give state and local law enforcement agencies much-needed resources to complete forensic analyses of crime scenes and untested rape kits:
“More than a decade ago, this legislation gave law enforcement in cities across America the tools to reduce the backlogs of untested kits and help bring survivors the answers they need. The DNA analysis that relies on the reauthorization of these programs is critical in the search for justice for victims and exoneration for those wrongly accused. Debbie Smith stands as a reminder that behind these crimes, there are families looking for closure and peace.”
When he introduced this bill in the 115th Congress, Sen. Cornyn said:
“[The Debbie Smith Act] has provided more than a decade of support for survivors, serving as a critical tool in the fight to end backlogs of untested kits in cities across America,” said Sen. Cornyn. “Reauthorizing these programs will ensure labs can continue to complete DNA analysis on evidence and exonerate those who are wrongly accused. It’s survivors like Debbie Smith who inspire us to keep working to ensure our criminal justice system never forgets that there is a victim at the heart of these crimes.”
Nelson Bunn, Executive Director of the National District Attorney’s Association, says DNA funding is one of the “most critical investments” government can make to prosecute sex offenders:
“DNA funding remains one of the most critical investments government can make for the members of our organization in order to prosecute sex offenders. DNA testing is the best tool we have to identify very serious offenders who remain at large, harming people in our communities, and the best weapon against wrongfully convicting an innocent person."
Debbie Smith, the sexual assault survivor for whom the Debbie Smith Act is named, says:
“This funding is critically important to supporting the work of DNA analysts at crime labs throughout the country. Evidence from backlogged DNA cases can provide the answers investigators and prosecutors need in criminal cases. Testing the evidence tells victims that we care, that their case is important enough. That they are important.”
In a September 5, 2019 op-ed in The Hill, Debbie Smith argued that DNA testing can take dangerous criminals off the streets and exonerate wrongfully imprisoned suspects:
“Without [Debbie Smith grants], literally hundreds of thousands of cases would still be awaiting DNA analysis, while those victims await answers. Even more disturbing is the thought that dangerous criminals still roam free because the DNA evidence that could take them off the streets sits untested, creating more victims while continuing their criminal careers. Meanwhile, innocent suspects may be imprisoned in their place, with only DNA analysis standing between them and exoneration. By reauthorizing federal investment in DNA analysis, the House can do something about this; the House has the power to change lives.”
Concerned Women for America CEO Penny Nancy, who also serves as President of Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee, testified in favor of the Debbie Smith Act’s reauthorization last Congress:
“Each time the reauthorization of the Debbie Smith Act comes up, we should do the hard work necessary to reevaluate our approach and raise the bar. We must push ourselves until each sexual assault kit is accounted for and every last one is processed – because every kit represents a brave woman waiting for justice. For some of these women, the clock is running out as the statute of limitations for rape approaches. Accountability in the reporting of existing backlogs must be required and processing of rape kits must be prioritized. We should never forget the picture of the deteriorating, abandoned warehouse in Detroit where some 11,000 rape kits were stockpiled, unopened and unprocessed for decades. Each of those kits represents a woman whose life was forever changed. She deserves closure. She deserves justice. Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee has been committed to working on this issue on the federal level and with states to end the backlog. We will continue to commit ourselves to these women. It was my privilege to stand before the Senate Judiciary Committee today on behalf of each hurting woman represented by these unprocessed rape kits. They deserve better.”
In a September 2018 op-ed in the New York Times, Dr. Greg Hampikian, a professor of biology at Boise State University, cautioned that DNA evidence isn’t infallible. Citing a study by researcher from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (N.I.S.T.) which found 74 out of 105 American crime labs and three Canadian labs produced incorrect results from a DNA mixture, Hampikian argued that it’s necessary to view DNA evidence with more skepticism. He pointed out that the N.I.S.T. study found that “labs analyzing the same evidence calculated vastly different statistics” with a 100 trillion-fold variation between different labs’ match statistics.
This legislation has 15 bipartisan House cosponsors, including eight Democrats and seven Republicans. Its Senate companion (S.820), sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), unanimously passed the Senate with the support of 21 bipartisan Senate cosponsors, including 13 Republicans and eight Democrats. It’s since been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, but committee Democrats has yet to take action on it.
Observing the House’s inaction on the Debbie Smith Act, RAINN president and founder Scott Berkowitz said on September 7, 2019, that “some in the House are using it [the Debbie Smith Act] as leverage to get the Senate to pass other things that have nothing to do with DNA testing,” which accounts for the House’s failure to reauthorize the Act. He added, “We need Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and Majority Leader [Steny H.] Hoyer to step up.”
The House reauthorized Debbie Smith funding as part of its April vote to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (H.R.1585), which means funding for the Act has passed both houses of Congress, but in different bills. As of early September 2019, the Senate hadn’t reauthorized VAWA. Sen. Hoyer spokeswoman Mariel Saez said that Rep. Hoyer was urging Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to take up the House’s April VAWA reauthorization. However, a McConnell spokesman said the majority leader wasn’t leading the Senate’s handling of VAWA.
Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, says political maneuvering by Democrats is the cause of the House’s failure to pass the Debbie Smith Act. When he introduced a resolution to bring the Debbie Smith Act to the House floor for a vote on October 16, 2019, he said:
“Democrats allowed the Debbie Smith Act to expire 16 days ago. Today, Judiciary Democrats let another markup pass without considering this crucial legislation. Their political actions have endangered a vital resource that helps sexual assault survivors and victims bring their perpetrators to justice. Thousands of sexual assault and rape survivors have been waiting months or years for justice because their rape kits remain untested. The Debbie Smith Act helps law enforcement test rape kits more quickly and deliver justice more swiftly. The Senate has passed this legislation unanimously, so the only barrier standing between this bill and the president’s desk is House Democrats.”
Concerned Women for America, H-E-A-R-T (Hope Exists After Rape Trauma), RAINN, Natasha’s Justice Project, Debbie Smith, and the Joyful Heart Foundation support this legislation.
Last Congress, this legislation was sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) with the support of two Democratic House cosponsors and didn’t see any committee action. Its Senate companion, sponsored by Sen. Cornyn, had the support of eight bipartisan Senate cosponsors, including five Democrats and three Republicans, and received a committee hearing but no committee vote.
Of Note: The Debbie Smith Act was first signed into law in 2004 and reauthorized in 2008 and 2014. It’s the primary program to end the backlog of untested and unanalyzed DNA evidence. Under the Debbie Smith Act, the federal government provides local and state crime laboratories with resources to end the backlog of untested DNA evidence from unsolved crimes, analyze DNA samples, and increase DNA-processing capabilities to guard against future backlogs.
Funds from the Debbie Smith Act can also be used to process offender DNA samples to ensure evidence from unsolved crimes can be matched against a known offender database, similar to the criminal fingerprint databases. Since 2011, there’s been an 85% increase in demand for DNA testing, putting a heavy burden on state and local crime labs.
Since the Debbie Smith Act’s enactment, over 860,000 cases have been processed. The National Institute of Justice reports that since 2005, Debbie Smith funds have contributed to making matches to over 195,000 cases in the national DNA database. It’s also led to three million offender DNA profiles’ uploads, accounting for 18% of all offender profiles in CODIS. According to the FBI, as of July 2019, CODIS has produced over 475,803 hits and assisted in more than 465,270 investigations into a range of crimes, including murder, rape, burglary, and vandalism. Furthermore, according to the National Institute of Justice, 42% of CODIS hits are the direct result of Debbie Smith Act funding.
Debbie Smith — whom the Debbie Smith Act is named for — was sexually assaulted by a stranger who broke into her home in 1989. Although she underwent a sexual assault forensic exam, the DNA evidence wasn’t analyzed for over five years. In 1994, the forensic evidence was finally entered into CODIS, the FBI’s national database, and yielded a “hit” identifying the perpetrator, who was already incarcerated on a 161-year sentence for robbing and abducting two women. He was brought to trial and eventually convicted for Debbie Smith’s rape.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / ktsimage)