Fighting the Rape Kit Backlog: Cantwell and Senate Colleagues Introduce Bill to Reauthorize Debbie Smith Act

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Last week, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) joined 14 Senate colleagues to introduce S.499, bipartisan legislation to reauthorize the Debbie Smith Act through 2029, which would provide state and local law enforcement agencies with resources to reduce the national backlog in analyzing DNA evidence from untested rape kits.

The Debbie Smith Act was originally signed into law in 2004 to provide local and state crime laboratories resources to end the backlog of untested DNA evidence from unsolved crimes, analyze DNA samples, and increase the capacity to process DNA in order to guard against future backlogs. The legislation, named after Debbie Smith of Virginia whose rapist was identified through DNA analysis, has since been reauthorized in 2008 and again in 2014.

Since it became law, more than 860,000 DNA cases have been processed. In addition to crime scene evidence, Debbie Smith funds are also utilized to process offender DNA samples to ensure evidence from unsolved crimes can be matched against a database of known offenders, similar to criminal fingerprint databases.

In 2014, the State of Washington had a backlog of over 10,000 untested sexual assault kits. Since then, major reforms have been enacted by the State, including; completing a one-time state-wide inventory of all DNA kits, increased funding for testing, ensuring a right to notice for victims on the processing status of their kit, implementing a kit tracking system from the initial collection of DNA at the hospital, and a commitment to testing all new kits within 45 days.

The State of Washington is currently working towards eliminating the backlog of untested kits. According to Washington State Patrol, there are 1,473 kits collected after July 2015 that still need testing.

In 2002, Sen. Cantwell cosponsored S. 2513, the Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology Act, which unanimously passed in the Senate. This bill included key provisions of the Debbie Smith Act and authorized $275 million over five years for the, “Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grants.” The bill also provides $60 million over five years to support state efforts to build databanks of DNA collected from convicted felons.

Sen. Cantwell joined Sen. Feinstein (D-CA), Graham (R-SC), Klobuchar (D-MN), Crapo (R-ID), Durbin (D-IL), Kennedy (R-LA), Blumenthal (D-CT), Grassley (R-IA), Cortez Masto (D-NM), Ernst (R-IA), Shaheen (D-NH), Blackburn (R-TN), Coons (D-DE), and Tillis (R-NC) in introducing the legislation.

This bill is endorsed by Debbie Smith, the Fraternal Order of Police, Major Cities Chiefs, Major County Sheriffs of America, National District Attorneys Association, Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), and Joyful Heart Foundation.