Amid a recent push by authorities to clear the mass backlog of unexamined sexual assault kits sitting on police storage shelves across the nation, Manhattan's top prosecutor, Vice President Joe Biden, and the US Attorney General announced the allocation of nearly $80 million in funding to assist the effort.
Manhattan's District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said Thursday that his office's pledge to provide $32 million in grants will help 32 jurisdictions clear their backlogs. US Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Vice President Biden simultaneously announced an additional $41 million would be made available to assist 20 jurisdictions to test their sexual assault kits. Combined, the grants will help test nearly 70,000 kits.
"How doubly invasive it is to have this rape kit procedure occur after you've been violated," said Biden before a small crowd of advocates, rape survivors, and press Thursday. The vice president, who as a senator authored the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) 1994, added that when kits go untested, and rapists go free, people fail to report sexual assault, "because they don't want to be raped again by the system."
While both sets of funding were previously announced separately several months ago, Thursday's announcement set out the local jurisdictions that would benefit from the awards, which ranged from more than $97,000 for the Travis County Sheriff's Office in Texas to test 148 kits to nearly $2 million for the Georgia State Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to test more than 3,100 kits.
"More than a decade ago New York became the first major city to eliminate its rape kit backlog," said Vance. "Today, we are going to help cities, counties, and states across the country to do exactly the same."
Over the past 40 years, the accumulation of untested kits has created a massive nationwide backlog — the precise scale of which remains unknown, though experts estimate it to be in the hundreds of thousands. Detroit alone has 11,000 untested kits. Memphis, more than 12,300, and Dallas has more than 4,100.
The reasons for the backlog are varied, but can in part be attributed to a lack of accountability from law enforcement, which has previously blamed the backlog on a lack of resources and funding.
"What stands in the way is money, and the will to get it done," Vance said.
Mariska Hargitay, founder and president of the Joyful Heart Foundation, which focuses on clearing the nationwide rape kit backlog, said at the conference that the funding is evidence of what "healing can and should look like."
Hargitay, who also plays Detective Olivia Benson on the long-running TV show Law & Order — Special Victims Unit, called the announcement "historic" because it means jurisdictions "now finally have the resources they need to test assault kits, to investigate, to arrest, to prosecute dangerous criminals, and get them off the streets."
Lack of police training in sexual assault investigation, a culture of disbelieving survivors, and victim blaming has also added to the backlog, say advocates.
Biden said he was surprised when he began writing the Violence Against Women Act that there was so much "resistance on the issue."
"Hospitals didn't want to do it, a lot of police, good women and men, thought there were better priorities than staying behind and paying people to look at the bedsheets, or a sweater or a follicle of hair or whatever else," he said.
The vice president said he had heard numerous stories where improperly trained officers had re-victimized survivors, adding, "So much of our culture is 'he said — she said.'"
At one point, Biden became emotional and his voice broke as he spoke about his late son Beau, who eliminated the statute of limitations on rape prosecutions during his time as Delaware's Attorney General.
Lynch said that the funding will also help jurisdictions "examine a variety of factors that may have contributed to the current backlog, such as evidence collection systems, storage methods, police practices, prosecutorial policies and laboratory procedures."
"No victim's suffering should be extended one minute longer because of procedural issues, ever," she said.
The cost of testing individual rape kits varies according to the particular jurisdiction, and can range from $500 to $1,500. Vance's office said it had established agreements with two private forensics labs to make the funding stretch further, estimating each kit will cost less than $675 to process.
One of the primary reasons the Manhattan District Attorney's office is providing the funding is to stop serial perpetrators, many of whom often cross state lines to commit more crimes, as well as help bring "closure" to survivors and their families, Vance said.
Helena Lazaro, a survivor and advocate whose kit sat on a shelf for more than 10 years before her rapist was prosecuted and jailed, told VICE News that "closure implies something is over."
"It's never over," she said, "but it can be different."