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senate Bill S. 820

Should Federal Funding for DNA Evidence Testing be Reauthorized?

Argument in favor

DNA evidence can help in identifying criminals, successfully prosecute crimes, and making communities safer. Reauthorizing the Debbie Smith Act will help law enforcement investigate crimes and close cold cases, including rapes, to give victims and families justice.

Argument opposed

DNA evidence can be wrong, leading to wrongful convictions of innocent people. The expansion of DNA testing raises the risk that faulty DNA results can lead to miscarriages of justice. This risk is elevated in the case of old evidence, which may be degraded due to age.

bill Progress


  • Not enacted
    The President has not signed this bill
  • The house has not voted
      house Committees
      Committee on the Judiciary
  • The senate has not voted
      senate Committees
      Committee on the Judiciary
    IntroducedMarch 14th, 2019

What is Senate Bill S. 820?

This bill — the Debbie Smith Act of 2019 — would reauthorize the Debbie Smith Act through 2024 to continue funding the testing of DNA evidence, including rape kits, from unsolved crimes nationwide; DNA training and education for law enforcement, correctional personnel, and court officers; and the Sexual Assault Forensic Exam Program, which supports forensic nurse training throughout the U.S.

Impact

Sexual assault survivors; untested DNA evidence from unsolved crimes; rape kits; DNA training and education for law enforcement, correctional personnel, and court officers; and the Sexual Assault Forensic Exam Program.

Cost of Senate Bill S. 820

A CBO cost estimate is unavailable.

More Information

In-DepthSen. 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.”

Original cosponsor Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) adds:

“The Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant program has been vital to reducing the backlog of untested DNA evidence from rape kits. Since its creation in 2004, it’s already been responsible for processing more than 860,000 cases and uploading 376,000 DNA profiles into the FBI’s DNA database. Profiles from this grant program now compose 43 percent of all forensic profiles in the FBI database. This program is incredibly important for rape survivors seeking justice, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to get it enacted.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who has been one of this bill’s House sponsors in both the 115th and 116th Congresses, adds:

“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.”

Concerned Women for America CEO Penny Nancy, who also serves as President of Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee, testified in favor 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 bill has the support of 14 bipartisan Senate cosponsors, including 10 Republicans and four Democrats. A House companion bill, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) with the support of seven bipartisan House cosponsors, including four Democrats and three Republicans.

Last Congress, Sen. Cornyn introduced this bill with the support of eight bipartisan Senate cosponsors, including five Democrats and three Republicans, and it received a committee hearing but no committee vote. A House companion bill, sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) with the support of two Democratic House cosponsors, didn’t see any committee action.

This bill has the support of Concerned Women for America, RAINN, Natasha’s Justice Project, Debbie Smith, and the Joyful Heart Foundation.


Of NoteThe 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 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. In February 2019, RAINN reported that the Debbie Smith Act has led to 376,000 DNA profiles from crime scenes’ uploads into CODIS (accounting for 43% of all forensic profiles in CODIS). It’s also led to three million offender DNA profiles’ uploads, accounting for 18% of all offender profiles in CODIS.

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.


Media:

Summary by Lorelei Yang

(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / ktsimage)

AKA

Debbie Smith Act of 2019

Official Title

A bill to strengthen programs authorized under the Debbie Smith Act of 2004.