Durbin: Congress Must Support Efforts to Eliminate Rape Kit Backlog

At Senate hearing on US rape kit backlog, Attorney General Lisa Madigan testifies about Illinois’ leadership in eliminating rape kit backlog and preventing sexual assaults

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] - Experts have estimated that hundreds of thousands of rape kits remain backlogged across the country, stuffed into police department evidence lockers or awaiting testing at crime labs.  At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) said Congress must continue to support state and local efforts to combat sexual assault.  Footage from the hearing will be made available later today.

He also pointed to the need for criminal justice system reform to free up resources for important law enforcement priorities like eliminating the rape kit backlog.  At a time when incarceration and detention costs account for one third of the Department of Justice’s budget, Durbin pointed said Congress should pass the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act he cosponsored with U.S. Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) which would reduce overcrowding in federal prisons by lowering sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

“The backlog has resulted in heartbreaking miscarriages of justice and victims from cash-strapped, low-income communities often are disproportionately affected. Testing all rape kits not only helps ensure that dangerous offenders are prosecuted; it also helps exonerate innocent people,” said Durbin.  “Eliminating the rape kit backlog, prosecuting the offenders, and providing support services to the victims will require ongoing federal funding in the years ahead.  Reforming our criminal justice system is one way to free up the resources needed to focus on other important law enforcement priorities.”

Also at today’s hearing, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan discussed how Illinois eliminated its backlog and included the initiative as part of the state’s broader efforts to address sexual assaults.  Those efforts include: sexual assault prevention; law enforcement training on best practices in responding to traumatized victims; improved support services for survivors; and other costs of reducing the backlog such as an increase in expensive investigations and prosecutions as tested kits identify suspects. As Illinois and other states take steps to comprehensively tackle sexual assault kit backlogs and related issues, federal funding is necessary to ensure that the needs of victims are met and backlogs become a problem of the past.

Illinois has been a leader in addressing the backlog at the state level.  In 2010, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a landmark law – that Madigan helped craft – to address the state’s rape kit backlog. The first of its kind in the country, the law mandated submission and testing of all sexual assault evidence. Specifically, it required law enforcement agencies to submit sexual assault evidence kits to the Illinois State Police (ISP) within 10 days of receiving the kits, and ISP to analyze the kits within six months, if sufficient resources and staffing are available. The law also mandated that law enforcement agencies provide ISP with an inventory of untested kits in their possession, in order to allow ISP to create a plan for analyzing the untested kits and a timeline for completion.  Since its enactment, Texas, Colorado, Michigan, and Ohio have passed similar laws. In a 2013 report, ISP indicated that as a result of the Illinois law, the backlog of 4000 kits in Illinois had been eliminated, and 969 profiles of suspects were matched in CODIS, the national DNA databank.

At the federal level, Congress passed the bipartisan Debbie Smith Rape Kit Backlog Reduction Act in 2004, as part of the Justice for All Act. The legislation sought to reduce the rape kit backlog by providing federal grants to state and local law enforcement agencies to perform DNA tests on evidence they collect from rape crime scenes. Congress reauthorized the program last year through 2019. Additionally, Congress appropriated $41 million in grant funding in the FY2015 appropriations bill, which will help state and local law enforcement to ensure all kits are submitted to crime labs for testing, as well as address specific backlog-related challenges states and localities may be facing (such as downstream costs).