Heller’s bipartisan, bicameral bill would reauthorize nation’s landmark Debbie Smith Act

Source: The Ripon Advance

By Ripon Advance News Service

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) on March 20 helped lead the introduction of a bipartisan, bicameral bill aimed at reauthorizing a federal law that includes funding to reduce the nation’s rape kit testing backlogs.

The Debbie Smith Crime Victims Protection Act, S. 2577, would reauthorize the Debbie Smith Act of 2004, which “ensures that critical funding flows to states and localities to reduce the backlog of DNA evidence,” said Sen. Heller in unveiling the Senate proposal along with U.S. Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who are among the original cosponsors of the bill.

The related version, H.R. 5341, also was introduced on March 20 in the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Reps. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who was the lead Democrat in introducing the original Debbie Smith Act in 2003.

If enacted, the legislation would continue the original law’s testing of cold case DNA evidence nationwide, including from rape kits; would maintain DNA training and education for law enforcement, correctional personnel and court officers; and would continue funding the Sexual Assault Forensic Exam Program, which trains forensic nurses, according to a summary provided by Sen. Heller’s staff.

“I look forward to seeing this bill signed into law to continue this important program, which brings justice to victims, ensures that criminals are punished for their heinous crimes, and exonerates the innocent,” said Sen. Heller in a March 26 statement.

Signed into law on Oct. 30, 2004 as part of the Justice For All Act of 2004, the original intent of the Debbie Smith Act was to provide local and state crime labs with 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, according to a summary from Sen. Cornyn’s staff, who reported that since it became law, more than 641,000 DNA cases have been processed.

The 2004 law – which was reauthorized in 2009 and 2014 – provides federal government grants to eligible states and units of local government to conduct DNA analyses of backlogged DNA samples collected from victims of crimes and criminal offenders and expands the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). In fact, the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program has accounted for 41 percent of all rape kit matches through CODIS since its inception, according to Sen. Feinstein.

“As the author of the Debbie Smith Act, which has been called the most important anti-rape legislation ever signed into law, I know how important this grant program is to local law enforcement and victims of crime across the country,” Rep. Maloney said. “It is essential that it be reauthorized as precincts work to process and match DNA evidence, including sexual assault kits, in a timely manner.”

Rep. Poe agreed and said that “roughly every two minutes, an American is sexually assaulted,” and then oftentimes is forced to live in fear while awaiting the results of a rape kit, which gets caught in a lengthy backlog.

“Victims of violent crime should not live in fear and be denied justice while their attackers go about their everyday lives due to a bureaucratic backlog,” Poe said. “It’s time to put these dangerous criminals behind bars and give survivors of sexual assault the justice they deserve.”

Sen. Cornyn pointed out that the 2004 landmark bill remains a “critical tool in the fight to end backlogs of untested kits in cities across America,” and said that “it’s survivors like Debbie Smith who inspire us to keep working to ensure our criminal justice system never forgets that there is a victim at the heart of these crimes.”

The law is named for Debbie Smith, a Williamsburg, Va., sexual assault survivor, founder of H-E-A-R-T Inc. (Hope Exists After Rape Trauma), and a longtime advocate for the elimination of DNA testing backlogs. She and her husband, Robert, a former police officer, travel the country to support victims, conduct speeches, and hold events through their nonprofit organization, H-E-A-R-T.

S. 2577 has been referred to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. H.R. 5341 has been referred for consideration to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.

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