By Melissa Schwartz, joyfulheartfoundation.org
The Joyful Heart Foundation, one of the leading advocacy organizations working toward nationwide rape kit reform, today applauded awards by the federal government of more than $34 million in grants to address the backlog of untested sexual assault kits in jurisdictions including the City of Charlotte (North Carolina), Cleveland, Orleans Parish (Louisiana), and Philadelphia. A full list of awards is available here.
This is the third year that the federal government has invested dollars — through the Justice Department’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) — to provide communities critically needed resources to: supplement efforts to test backlogged kits in law enforcement facilities; create multidisciplinary teams to investigate and prosecute cases connected to the backlog; and address the need for victim notification and survivor re-engagement with the criminal justice system.
“These focused resources are helping law enforcement get serial criminals off of the street, easing the burden on personnel, facilitating community engagement and relationship building, and making communities safer,” said Sarah Haacke Byrd, Joyful Heart’s Managing Director. “These funds are also providing a path to justice and healing for survivors of sexual assault. Focusing a national effort on comprehensive reform demonstrates a commitment to survivors that we will do everything possible to bring long-awaited healing and justice.”
Joyful Heart serves as a technical advisor for SAKI grantees, with a focus on ensuring a survivor-centered, trauma-informed response as a fundamental part of comprehensive reform.
When tested, rape kit evidence can identify an unknown assailant, reveal serial offenders, and exonerate the wrongly convicted. Yet, there are hundreds of thousands of rape kits sitting untested in police storage facilities across the country representing potentially serial offenders free on the streets to commit more crimes, and thousands of leads to investigate, cases to prosecute, and survivors to re-engage with compassion and care.
Ending the rape kit backlog will take a coordinated effort and deep commitment at all levels of government and in communities across the United States. Joyful Heart has launched a national campaign, developed following an extensive review, which formalized six pillars for reform. The goal: to pass comprehensive rape kit reform legislation in all 50 states.
“SAKI has become a critical tool in conducting reform work,” added Ilse Knecht, Joyful Heart’s Policy & Advocacy Director. “Many jurisdictions received federal funding to address their backlogs before their state enacted rape kit reform laws, but after seeing firsthand the value of testing backlogged rape kits, in terms of public safety and justice served, many of these states have begun the necessary work on legislative change.”
Today, only 8 states have laws requiring the testing of both current and backlogged kits. That means in most states, the decision to send kits for testing is left up to individual discretion. Research has shown discretion to be a major contributing factor in the massive number of untested rape kits sitting on shelves across the country.
This work takes political will, but it also takes significant resources. Implementation of state laws often depends on whether law enforcement, crime labs, and prosecutors receive additional resources and funding dedicated to clearing the backlog and pursuing leads. As jurisdictions enact legislation and policies to reform law enforcement practices around rape kit testing, the need for funding will increase.
Joyful Heart has created the premier national resource about the rape kit backlog, which includes an interactive map and resources. The mission of the Joyful Heart Foundation is to transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, support survivors’ healing, and end this violence forever. Learn more at: ENDTHEBACKLOG.org.