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Women Still Not 'SAFER' From Sexual Assault, Rape

Penny Nance

Rape. As a mother about to send her only daughter off to college, this is one of my biggest fears, and it is something we all hope that our loved ones will never face.

The statistics, however, are startling. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, there are approximately 293,066 victims of rape and sexual assault each year. The National Institute of Justice at the Department of Justice found that a college with a student population of 10,000 could account for as many as 350 rapes per year.

These are more than just numbers on a page for me. Years ago, I was almost a statistic, and the incident has haunted me each day since. Despite being attacked while running in Northern Virginia, I was neither raped nor sexually assaulted, thanks to the quick actions of a passerby.

The man who accosted me was identified and apprehended -- but not before he assailed two other women.

Thousands of women face a much different situation than mine – women, like Debbie Smith, who did not have someone to come to their aid. In 1989, Debbie Smith was in her home doing laundry while her husband, a police officer, napped after working the night shift. Her attacker grabbed her from her house and dragged her to the woods where he robbed and repeatedly raped her.

She, and thousands like her, courageously go to the hospital to have evidence collected for their rape kit. They suffer the invasive, several-hours-long exam to take the first step towards seeking justice for themselves.

And they live in fear while waiting for their assailant to be identified. It took six years for the man who raped Debbie Smith to be identified. The DNA evidence was the key to her justice. The great travesty for many women, however, is that they wait for years, expecting to hear that there was a match on the DNA evidence from their kit and their attacker has been locked up. All the while, their rape kit remains on some shelf in the police station – untested.

After hearing Debbie's testimony on Capitol Hill about using DNA to solve rape cases, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) introduced the Debbie Smith Act. Concerned Women for America (CWA) joined the coalition pushing to enact this important legislation. In conversations with then-Majority Leader Bill Frist, CWA emphasized that our government has an obligation to protect its citizens and that's why passing the Debbie Smith Act had to be a top priority. In 2004, this historic legislation, which was included in the Justice for All Act, was signed into law. The Debbie Smith Act was heralded as the most important anti-rape legislation ever passed.

The Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program, which was reauthorized in 2008 and 2014, provides Federal grants to states to reduce the DNA backlog in criminal investigations, particularly rapes and sexual assaults.
Simply stated, the Debbie Smith Act should alleviate some of the strain placed on our nation's crime laboratories that did not have the capacity to analyze DNA samples in an appropriate and timely fashion.

The sweet taste of victory after the bill's passage was short-lived. Only 40 percent of the funds appropriated are required to be used for these important purposes. Furthermore, in recent years the Department of Justice has spent a great deal of Debbie Smith Act money on purposes not directly related to the testing of rape kits.

In the Committee Report on the Fiscal Year 2012 Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee noted that: "Too often … NIJ appears to fritter away forensic and DNA analysis funding by broadly dispersing grants to agencies and entities of dubious merit." The report found the money was misspent on polling firms, colleges and universities, and cell phone technology components, instead of spending it to test DNA evidence.

To rectify the backlog of rape kits, Reps. Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Carolyn Maloney (R-New York) and Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) introduced the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry (SAFER) Act, which was included and passed into law as part of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. SAFER would help clear up the backlog on the estimated 400,000 rape kits currently collecting dust either at the crime labs or in local law enforcement agencies by requiring that a minimum of 75 percent of the funds go directly towards DNA testing. The legislation was designed to hold state and local law enforcement accountable for utilizing federal funds to provide speedy justice for victims of sexual assault.

Unfortunately, the Department of Justice (DOJ) continues to drag its feet and not implement SAFER, leaving thousands of women to live with the knowledge that the individual who assaulted them has not yet been punished. This failure is the true "War on Women." With Sexual Assault Awareness Month wrapped up, now is the time to join together to insist that the DOJ follow the law and make sure that thousands of women get justice.

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