Continuing his push to prevent crimes against women, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet introduced a bipartisan amendment with U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) that would strengthen the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) by helping to eliminate the massive backlog of untested rape kits--estimated to be about 400,000 nationwide. The Senate is expected to vote to begin consideration of VAWA today.
The amendment also would improve law enforcement tools to investigate and prosecute violent criminals that threaten women and children and would stiffen penalties for serious crimes against women and children, among other provisions.
"The current rape kit backlog forces victims to wait for justice -- and sometimes prevents it altogether. That's simply not acceptable," Bennet said. "This amendment will target the backlog and strengthen the tools available to law enforcement so they can work more quickly and efficiently to bring offenders to justice."
"For far too long untested rape kits have been piling up due to limited resources prescribed by antiquated laws, denying justice and compounding the pain for an untold number of victims in cities across Texas and the nation," Cornyn said. "This legislation will cut down on the unacceptable backlogs of rape kits sitting in crime labs nationwide, toughen sentencing for some of our most reprehensible criminals, and give new tools to law enforcement to track sex offenders who dodge registration."
The amendment, which is bipartisan and deficit-neutral, would require that 7 percent of funds from the Debbie Smith Act, which provides funds for DNA analysis, would be set aside for a grant program for state and local law enforcement to conduct audits of their rape kit storage backlogs. It would also amend current law to increase the percentage of grant funds that must be used directly on analyzing untested DNA evidence from crime scenes or enhancing the capacity of labs to do so from 40 percent to 75 percent.
In Colorado, DNA evidence has led to convictions in some sexual assault cases a decade or more after the cases were opened. Earlier this month, DNA evidence helped convict a man in a cold case of sexual assault in Denver from 2008. Last year, a conviction was brought on an 11-year-old sexual assault case, and 2010 saw the conviction of a rapist who committed multiple assaults in the 1990s.
The amendment would also make it easier to track down unregistered sex offenders and tighten mandatory minimum sentencing for serious crimes against women and children, including cases in which the crime of interstate domestic violence leads to the death of the victim, rape by force or threat, rape by drugging a victim or otherwise rendering the victim unconscious and transporting a child younger than 12 years old in interstate prostitution.
According to the Denver Metro Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee, there were 34 domestic violence fatalities in Colorado in 2011.
The Justice for Victims Act has been endorsed by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) and the National Association to Protect Children. Much of the amendment's provisions are mirrored in the SAFER Act, a House bill with wide bipartisan support.
Bennet, a cosponsor of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), last month visited The Rape Awareness and Assistance Program in Denver to highlight the need to pass the bill.
VAWA advances efforts to combat domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. The bill provides essential resources to state and local law enforcement to investigate and prosecute crimes and to non-profit organizations that supply essential services for victims and survivors. The act was originally enacted in 1994 as Title IV of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.