Remarks as prepared
Quote, “We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.”
That was Susan B. Anthony on July 4, 1876, presenting the Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States.
The march to ensure that guarantee – to ensure equal justice for our daughters – continues almost one-hundred fifty years later. Women have fought for and obtained enormous progress in this regard, in nearly every facet of American life. But the pursuit of equal justice – and in particular, equality within the criminal justice system – remains unfinished.
For decades, the national backlog of sexual assault kits, known as “rape kits,” perpetuated a seismic injustice against sexual assault survivors, and in particular women, denying them basic, equal, civil rights under the law.
The backlog not only undermined justice and equality; it also made every woman and every American less safe.
In 2014, my Office announced what was then an unprecedented, three-year, $38 million national investment to address this intergenerational injustice. Using dollars seized in our prosecutions against major banks, we invested in 32 jurisdictions in 20 states, and asked Congress to match our investment.
At the time, estimates suggested there were hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits collecting dust in police storage facilities across the country – representing hundreds of thousands of broken promises to survivors. The Congress acted soon thereafter, enabling the U.S. D.O.J.’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to pledge an additional $41 million toward ending the backlog.
We knew based on our own history in New York City that eliminating such a backlog, while not easy, could be done.
Between 2000 and 2003, my predecessor Robert Morgenthau and a team of pioneering prosecutors spearheaded efforts to eliminate our city’s backlog – which then included more than 17,000 kits. Clearing the backlog produced an immediate impact on our public safety and brought long-awaited justice to survivors. It enabled our Office to file dozens of indictments based on DNA cold-case hits, and to help solve crimes across the country by entering these DNA profiles into the FBI’s nationwide databank.
Our Office learned from this successful endeavor that testing all rape kits, regardless of the facts of the case, could help identify suspects, convict perpetrators, prevent future offenses, and even exonerate the innocent. A decade later, we incorporated these lessons into our groundbreaking investment toward ending the national backlog.
Not every case would be solved, I said when we announced this program, but every kit would be tested and every hit would be investigated. Thus, we would begin to rectify what had been for far too long a tragic failure of government and law enforcement at all levels – a decades-long, systematic denial of equal rights.
Today, we are happy to announce that the results of our three-year investment toward ending the national rape kit backlog are in.
More than 55,000 rape kits were tested in 20 states with our investment.
Of those, more than 18,000 newly developed DNA profiles were uploaded into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System.
Our investment has already yielded 186 new arrests and 64 new convictions, including 47 felony sexual assault convictions. And that’s only just so far. As we know from our experience clearing New York City’s backlog, the testing of these 55,000 kits will continue to produce new investigations, arrests, and prosecutions for years to come.
And, our investment has yielded the elimination or near-elimination of rape kit backlogs in 7 states. Please join me in applauding Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, and Oregon.
It wasn’t just dollars that yielded these results. It was the leadership, determination, and courage of many in this room today – members of law enforcement, elected lawmakers, tireless advocates, and fearless survivors. They made this possible, and they are nowhere near done.
Since 2015, the Bureau of Justice Assistance has contributed $140 million toward ending the backlog, and is gearing up to release a new solicitation this year. BJA Director Jon Adler and John Jay President Karol Mason, who previously headed the Office of Justice Programs, are both with us today, and we should give them a huge round of applause for ensuring the federal government’s continuing investments.
Mariska Hargitay and her Joyful Heart Foundation – it can’t be stated enough – awakened national consciousness on this issue and worked tirelessly to provide resources and support to survivors, while at the same time advocating for changes to the law.
And at the state level, Georgia State Representative Scott Holcomb, standing on stage with me, sponsored a paradigm-shifting bill that required every kit be tested. We’re also joined today by Multnomah County DA Rod Underhill, who passionately supported comprehensive rape kit reform in Oregon. Thanks to their efforts, their states are in the vanguard when it comes to testing every kit and standing with survivors.
Survivors like Myisha, Justina, Tracy, and Taywana, who are standing behind me, and who are some of the strongest people I’ve ever met. Survivors who rightfully assumed that we in law enforcement had forgotten about them. Survivors who for years watched law enforcement forensically test every firearm they recovered, and every drug powder they seized, within days of obtaining those kinds of evidence. Survivors who are now receiving calls they never thought they would, informing them that their assailant has been identified, and that justice – a concept they would be forgiven for disbelieving – justice can now commence.
It’s worth reiterating that not every case will be solved or lead to a prosecution. But testing every kit is our best practice and our moral imperative – both to ensure survivors receive the support and action they deserve, and to ensure that these backlogs never happen again.
Dedicated funding streams are necessary to end the backlog, but they are not sufficient. States must simultaneously rewrite their laws.
So throughout today’s summit, my Office will speak about four key legislative actions that we are recommending in our Test Every Kit report.
One, states have to mandate timely testing of all new rape kits, with ongoing funding guaranteed by the state.
Two, states must require, by statute, the testing of all backlogged kits.
Three, states must require an annual statewide inventory of untested rape kits and develop systems to track kits throughout the testing process.
And four, states including New York must eliminate statutes of limitation for felony sexual assault charges.
Just as important, we will also discuss today how states and law enforcement agencies can integrate victim-centered and trauma-informed approaches as they engage with the survivors who are receiving these calls.
As we gather today, the number of sexual assaults reported to law enforcement in New York City and across the country is rising. This is due in great part to the movement of brave survivors coming forward, who are forcing a long-overdue reckoning with decades of power imbalance and intolerable sexual abuse.
Now more than ever, we must stand vigilantly beside them, and do everything in our power to guarantee them justice, equality, and all the civil rights that belong to citizens of the United States.
We must test every kit.