We heard so much about the so-called "war on women" during the last presidential election, with both parties pointing the finger at the other. However, there is a real opportunity for Congress to protect American women before they leave for the Christmas break, and yet, the House and Senate are too busy haggling over the details to get it done.
Imagine you are a woman who survived the trauma of being raped. You show courage by going to the hospital to have evidence collected from your body for the rape kit. You suffer the invasive, several-hours-long exam, but at least you feel that you have taken the first step towards getting justice. You take a miniscule amount of comfort in the belief that your effort to get the rape kit evidence into the hands of law enforcement will help to catch and convict your rapist.
And then you wait to hear he has been caught. But years go by with no news. Then you find out your rape kit was never tested, and the statute of limitations has run out. Justice is denied due to an inept bureaucracy.
While conservatives have been blamed for waging a so-called "war on women," the dirty little secret is that Congress has been sitting on a piece of legislation that offers women real justice and protection under the law.
The Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting (SAFER) Act of 2012 has been introduced in the House by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) and in the Senate by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado). It is a major step in the right direction to processing an estimated 400,000 rape kits currently collecting dust either at the crime labs or in local law enforcement agencies and will force them to use existing government grants as intended when originally authorized. The legislation seeks to hold the bureaucracy accountable in a number of common sense ways, including the creation of a reporting system of forensic evidence from sexual assault cases. Aggregate information about the size, scope, and location of the rape kit backlog will be compiled in the report and published online, giving the public more information about this tragedy while protecting the victim's name and other identifying information.
The bill also requires that 75 percent of the Debbie Smith Act funds be used to analyze untested DNA evidence from crime scenes or to enhance the capacity of labs to test it. Currently, only 40 percent of the funds appropriated are required to be used for these important purposes. Debbie Smith, for whom the original bill was named, has worked tirelessly to bring hope to women traumatized by rape. Debbie helped establish federal assistance for processing rape kits. She understands the severe frustration and fear a victim goes through while waiting for her rapist to be brought to justice.
For six years, Debbie waited in emotional turmoil for Norman Jimmerson, the thug who dragged her out of her kitchen and raped her in the woods behind her home, to be found and convicted. Shortly after Debbie's rape, Jimmerson also abducted and robbed two more women. Because Debbie was brave enough to undergo a forensic exam, only God knows how many women she saved from being victimized by her rapist.
Seems logical doesn't it? Almost like it should have already been happening?
Congress has an opportunity to protect women and to hold state and local law enforcement accountable for utilizing federal funds to provide speedy justice for victims of sexual assault.
This legislation should be a no-brainer; it is bipartisan and strengthens the Debbie Smith Act by eliminating the testing backlog without spending any additional money.
According to a committee report on the Fiscal Year 2012 Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bill, the Department of Justice has misspent Debbie Smith Act funds on activities such as polling firms, colleges and universities, and cell phone technology components, instead of spending it to test sexual assault and crime scene evidence. The SAFER Act will ensure that the taxpayer money allocated to rape kit backlogs is not squandered.
What's not to like about this legislation? It does not increase spending; it has bipartisan support, and it ensures that federal funds are used for the purpose intended. However, most importantly, it fulfills the obligation of government to protect its citizens. Congress is still bickering on a host of issues. Some of them deserve to be hard-fought battles. This Christmas season, let's come together on one thing.
We need to enter the New Year with a renewed commitment to provide justice for rape victims; we need the SAFER Act to pass. I challenge every member of Congress to ensure that dangerous criminals are taken off the streets and our mothers, daughters, and sisters are not denied justice because of bureaucratic backlogs. Failure to do so is the true "war on women."