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Congress OKs bill to cut backlog of untested rape kits

Experts say thousands of the kits are languishing in communities across the country

Congress sent President Barack Obama legislation on Thursday renewing a soon-to-expire program that helps local governments cut their backlogs of unexamined DNA evidence in rape cases.

The program, which was backed by Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder, provides federal grants to state and local law enforcement agencies so they can speed their analyses of untested evidence kits. Experts say many thousands of such kits are languishing in communities across the country, including some that are many years old.

The Debbie Smith Act is named after a woman who was taken from her home in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1989 and raped. It took years for the evidence in her case to be examined and her attacker caught. She and other supporters of the program have argued that such delays add further layers of fear and torment to their experiences.

The Senate used a voice vote Thursday to give final approval to the bipartisan bill. The measure was approved by the House in April, and it now goes to Obama for his signature.

The legislation renews the program through 2019. Without congressional action, the program would have expired on Oct. 1. Money for the grants will have to be provided in separate spending legislation.

The kits hold DNA and other evidence that is collected from a woman's body after she reports having been sexually assaulted. It costs $1,200 to $1,500 complete tests on each rape kit, according to the Detroit Crime Commission, which provides analytical support to the city's government. Earlier this year, Detroit reported it had 10,995 untested kits collected from 1993 to 2006, according to U.S. Department of Justice documents.

In Memphis, Tennessee, alone, there are more than 12,000 untested rape kits, going back to the 1980s, according to the New York–based Rape Kit Action Project, which has been tracking the backlogs in all 50 states.

Nationwide, the Department of Justice estimates, 400,000 rape kits have gone untested. Last year Congress recognized the backlog of untested rape kits as a national problem in passing the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting Act, or SAFER, which seeks to provide data on the number of unsolved rape cases awaiting testing and establish better standards for the tracking, storage and use of DNA evidence in sexual assault cases.

Three states — Colorado, Illinois and Texas — have passed laws that mandate statewide accounting of untested rape kits.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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