With Complementary $41 Million In Federal Funding Announced Today, Nearly $80 Million Being Dedicated To Address National Rape Kit Backlog
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., today announced the award of approximately $38 million in grants to 32 jurisdictions in 20 states across the United States to eliminate backlogs of untested sexual assault evidence kits, or “rape kits.” The two-year awards, ranging in amount from approximately $97,000 to $2 million, will help test an estimated 56,475 rape kits, generating DNA evidence that will help solve cases across the country.
Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch joined District Attorney Vance to announce the recipients of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance’s (BJA) separate, but complementary, $41 million Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (“SAKI”) Grant Program, which is expected to test approximately 13,500 kits in 20 jurisdictions.
“Today is a historic day for survivors of sexual assault across the country,” said District Attorney Vance. “Our $38 million investment means that more than 56,000 sexual assault kits will finally be tested, providing hope to tens of thousands of women who summoned the courage to report a rape and undergo an invasive examination. These grants will generate leads in thousands of cases across the country, some of them decades old. Tackling the national rape kit backlog means addressing a women’s and human rights issue that has been ignored for far too long. We are refusing to accept that some criminal justice problems are just too big – too ingrained, too controversial, too expensive – to solve.
“I would like to thank Vice President Biden and U.S. Attorney General Lynch for joining us to announce their own $41 million initiative, and for the dedication they have shown to this cause. Together, these grants represent the single largest contribution toward ending the rape kit backlog that has ever been made. I would also like to thank Mariska Hargitay for her relentless advocacy, as well as the many prosecutors, elected officials, survivors, and so many more who have worked tirelessly to draw attention to this injustice, and to end the national backlog.”
Vice President Biden said: “Rape kits are an essential tool in modern crime fighting — not only for the victim, but, for the entire community. Studies show we solve up to 50 percent of previously unsolved rapes when these kits are tested. When we solve these cases, we get rapists off the streets. For most survivors, seeing their rapists brought to justice, and knowing that they will not return, brings peace of mind and a sense of closure. The grants we’re announcing today to reduce the national rape kit backlog will bring that sense of closure and safety to victims while improving community safety.”
Attorney General Lynch said: “The groundbreaking initiative we are announcing today is part of the Justice Department’s longstanding efforts to support survivors of sexual violence and to bring abusers to justice. For anyone who has felt isolated and afraid, left out and left behind as a result of a sexual crime, our message is clear: we will not forget you. We will not abandon you. You are not alone.”
Recipients of Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and BJA Grants Are Located in 26 States
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Initiative
Sexual assault evidence kits, commonly known as “rape kits,” are collections of evidence taken during an invasive, lengthy examination conducted at a hospital or rape crisis center following a sexual assault. The DNA evidence contained in rape kits is a powerful tool for identifying suspects, convicting perpetrators, preventing future offenses, and even exonerating the innocent.
In November, District Attorney Vance committed an initial $35 million in funding, which has since grown to approximately $38 million, to help jurisdictions nationwide test their backlogged rape kits. In December, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office asked interested jurisdictions to submit an Expression of Interest, which informed the Request for Proposals the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office issued in April 2015. Grant applicants were asked to submit information about the size and scope of their backlogs, their current testing policies, and their willingness to follow best practices determined by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and its partners. States, territories, local governments, law enforcement agencies, and public forensic labs were all encouraged to apply for funding.
The Grant Recipients
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office is awarding funding to 32 jurisdiction in 20 states spanning from coast to coast. Every jurisdiction that applied for funding is receiving it through either the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office or BJA; no city or state that reported a backlog was turned away. Awardees will be required to fund the testing of their kits initially, and will be reimbursed for their expenses each quarter after meeting prescribed performance measures.
In order to make the most effective use of the $38 million in funding, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office established agreements with two private forensic labs to secure competitive rates for testing kits. On average, kits tested through the initiative will cost less than $675 per kit – significantly less than the estimated nationwide average of $1,000 to $1,500 per kit.
Awards ranged from $97,305 to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office in Texas, which will test approximately 148 kits, to $1,999,982 to the Georgia State Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which will test approximately 3,108 kits.
The following jurisdictions will receive funding through the Manhattan District Attorney’s initiative. A detailed breakdown of the awards is available here.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s $41 Million Sexual Assault Kit Initiative
Today, BJA simultaneously announced the recipients of funds from its $41 million Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (“SAKI”) Grant Program. The funding was contained in a federal spending bill approved by the United States Congress last fall to address the national rape kit backlog. BJA’s grant program aims to provide jurisdictions with resources to develop and implement comprehensive, multi-disciplinary rape kit reform, including testing and inventorying kits, funding investigations and prosecutions that stem from DNA hits, trainings, victim services, and tracking systems.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and BJA worked together to ensure optimal coordination between each agency’s respective grant programs when selecting grantees, and to ensure that there is no duplication of services. Certain recipients of the Manhattan District Attorney’s funding will receive training and technical assistance from BJA, including participation in cross-jurisdictional training efforts, support for jurisdictions to determine the scope of their untested SAK inventories, and guidance for adherence to evidence-based best practices for the testing and use of SAK evidence. In total, nine jurisdictions will receive funding from both the District Attorney’s Office and BJA.
Statements of Support
Mariska Hargitay, actress, director, advocate, and founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation, said: “To me, the rape kit backlog is one of the clearest and most shocking demonstrations of how we regard these crimes in our society. Testing rape kits sends a fundamental and crucial message to victims of sexual violence: You matter. What happened to you matters. We are so grateful to Vice President Biden for his continued leadership on this issue, and to Attorney General Lynch and Manhattan District Attorney Vance for recognizing that survivors deserve justice and our finest efforts to give them everything we can to help them heal.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio said: “New York City is committed to combatting sexual assault and was the first city to clear its backlog of sexual assault kits. I want to thank Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance for making a key investment to identify perpetrators of sexual assault in other cities and prevent them from repeating their crimes across states lines, which we know is a problem. By helping to solve sexual assault cases in other cities, we are ultimately addressing and preventing sexual assault in New York City - a critical component of ensuring that we remain the safest big city in America.”
Dr. Barbara Sampson, Chief Medical Examiner of New York City, said: “As home to the largest and most advanced public forensic DNA laboratory in North America, the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner works independently and tirelessly at the leading edge of science in the service of justice. We are proud to have helped end the backlog of sexual assault evidence kits in New York City in 2003, and set an example for other jurisdictions in the course of that project. The efforts of our dedicated scientists ensure that our City continues to remain free of any backlog in sexual assault cases, while all evidence is analyzed rapidly and accurately under the strictest, state of the art protocols.”
Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney said: “The rape kit backlog remains an enormous problem, and today we take a major step toward eliminating it for good. I applaud Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and District Attorney Vance, who understand that an untested kit in Ohio can allow a rapist to attack again on the streets of New York or elsewhere. I wrote the Debbie Smith Act and the SAFER Act because I have long believed that we should test every kit. The survivors of sexual assault deserve to see their attackers brought to justice, and that cannot happen if the critical, material evidence is sitting on a shelf. Today’s announcement will save lives, and give so many survivors the closure they have been waiting for.”
Linda Fairstein, author and former chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit, said: “There is no more important undertaking in our national efforts to combat sexual violence than the elimination of the egregious backlog of untested rape evidence collection kits in storage across this country. That the great office of the New York County District Attorney led this effort in 1999 was a commitment to affording every victim and survivor a chance at seeing justice done, and attempting to prevent other sexual assaults and homicides by the recidivist predators who commit these crimes. The stunning vision of Cyrus Vance - alongside Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Loretta Lynch - will save lives and solve thousands of cases that have long resulted in the denial of rape survivors a chance to triumph in the courtroom.”
Gloria Steinem, activist and author, said: “I am grateful to District Attorney Vance and Vice President Biden for this leap of progress toward justice. It will not only bring closure to those already victimized, but could protect many more. The last study I saw for New York State estimated that the average rapist had raped fourteen times. That’s something we must remember. If, say, one in five women has been sexually assaulted, this does not mean that one in five men is sexually violent. The drug of ‘masculinity’ is peddled by this still male-dominant culture, but men like these two wise, kind, gentle and effective authorities offer a different vision at the highest level. Their example inspires more. I thank them from the bottom of my heart.”
NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Director Elizabeth Glazer said: “Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s office has been a leader in combatting sexual assault, and I applaud his significant investment in helping other jurisdictions address this problem. The clearance of the backlog of sexual assault kits is an important piece of this City’s commitment to reduce sexual assault. Today’s investment is an important step toward helping other cities and states promote public safety.”
NYC Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence Commissioner Rosemonde Pierre-Louis said: “For too long, survivors of sexual assault have undergone the invasive and traumatic experience of submitting to a sexual assault exam only to discover that their ‘rape kits’ have been left to collect dust on a shelf. Relieving the backlog of untested ‘rape kits’ is a milestone in letting these survivors know that they matter. I stand with Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance in this important step to help sexual assault survivors in New York and across the country find justice.”
St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital’s Crime Victims Treatment Center Director Susan Xenarios said: “When a survivor of sexual assault chooses to undergo a forensic rape exam, and releases that kit into the criminal justice system, he or she needs to know that the evidence will be tested and analyzed swiftly and accurately. Rape kits allow survivors to seek the justice they deserve, and prevent rapists from continued perpetration. We are proud of the Manhattan District Attorney’s effort to eliminate the backlog of untested rape kits and bring the opportunity for justice to survivors nationwide.”
National Organization for Women – NYC President Sonia Ossorio said: “We applaud DA Vance’s leadership and commitment to ending the rape kit backlog nationwide. Every single rape kit that remains untested is one more survivor ignored, one more missed opportunity for justice, and one more chance for an offender to rape again. This initiative by the Manhattan District Attorney is particularly critical for survivors of rape who live in communities with fewer resources and who should not have any less access to justice than those in more affluent communities.”
Natasha’s Justice Project Founder Natasha Alexenko said: “I’m living proof that testing rape kits makes our nation a safer place for everyone. In 1993, my body became a crime scene after I was raped and robbed at gunpoint by a monster that would spend the next 15 years on a one-man nationwide crime spree. Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. and his team at the New York County District Attorney’s Office never gave up on their pursuit of justice for the People of New York and me. This violent criminal is finally behind bars, no longer a public safety hazard. The level of altruism they continue to display to me, the people of New York and the nation is nothing short of galvanizing. This initiative sends out a message to everyone – victims and public safety matter.”
Rape Kits and DNA Evidence
DNA from a rape kit in one jurisdiction may help to solve crimes in that location, and in other jurisdictions across the country. In fact, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, as of July 2015, 3,252 DNA hits have been generated in New York from profiles entered into the national DNA databank.
In cases where a suspect has not yet been identified, biological evidence from the crime scene can be analyzed and compared to offender profiles in DNA databases, such as the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), to help identify the perpetrator. Crime scene evidence can also be linked to other crime scenes through the use of DNA databases to identify serial offenders, and arrests for lower-level crimes in one state might help solve a cold case in another state. DNA evidence has also helped exonerate the wrongfully convicted.
New York City and State have long been leaders in DNA testing, and District Attorney Vance’s initiative expands on that success by developing best practices for testing, tracking, and utilizing rape kit evidence. Between 2000 and 2003, New York City sent out approximately 17,000 rape kits for testing, creating a model for other large cities to tackle their own backlogs. From those kits, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office was able to file 49 indictments based on DNA cold case hits. Combined, those offenders are now serving more than 900 years in jail.
The Office also pioneered efforts to indict the unidentified DNA profiles developed from these previously dormant rape kits as “John Does,” thereby stopping the clock on the statute of limitations. The Office indicted 24 of these “John Doe” DNA profiles – 18 of which are still waiting for a DNA match to enter the system.
Based on previous successful efforts to eliminate rape kit backlogs in jurisdictions such as New York City and Detroit, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and its partners have identified several best practices critical to a successful testing effort. Jurisdictions that received funding submitted plans that reflect these best practices, including, but not limited to:
Funding the Initiative
The funding being allocated by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office is the result of settlements with international banks that violated U.S. sanctions. These asset forfeiture funds, derived from settlements with BNP Paribas S.A., HSBC Holdings plc, and Standard Chartered Bank, form the foundation of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Criminal Justice Investment Fund (CJIF). This $38 million investment is just one of the recent allocations of these funds, including:
The City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Governance is acting as the technical assistance consultant for the CJIF, helping to guide the selection of projects, provide oversight for the projects once selected, and carefully monitor performance and outcomes to assess the impact of initiative-funded projects. The Joyful Heart Foundation served as a technical advisor to the District Attorney’s Office for this initiative.
District Attorney Vance thanked the following members of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for their work on this initiative: Chief Assistant District Attorney Karen Freidman Agnifilo; Executive Assistant District Attorney Audrey Moore, Chief of the Special Victims Bureau; Assistant District Attorney Melissa Mourges, Chief of the Cold Cases/Forensic Sciences Unit; Assistant District Attorney Martha Bashford, Chief of the Sex Crimes Unit; Karen Sheehan, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer; and Maggie Wolk, Director of Planning and Management.
District Attorney Vance also thanked the many tireless advocates whose support made this initiative possible, including: Linda Fairstein, author and former chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit; Natasha Alexenko, founder of Natasha’s Justice Project; Gloria Steinem; and the Joyful Heart Foundation.