- Associated Press - Thursday, September 10, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) - An estimated 70,000 rape kits sitting in laboratories and evidence collection rooms across the country will be tested with a combined $79 million in federal and New York City funds designed to cut the backlog of untested DNA evidence in 27 states, officials announced Thursday.

“There’s nothing more consequential than giving a woman back her life,” said Vice President Joe Biden, after touring the New York City medical examiner’s testing lab with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and “Law & Order: SVU” actress Mariska Hargitay.

The White House will contribute $41 million toward the effort, supporting not just testing efforts but also funding auditing and training for localities on police and forensic best practices. Vance, who secured $38 million in asset forfeiture money, said he hopes tested cases will lead to convictions and, in turn, restore faith in the justice system for sexual assault victims.

Rape kits are actually a series of DNA samplings and other evidence secured via intimate and sometimes invasive medical procedures conducted immediately after an attack. Experts say testing them promptly and comparing them to federal DNA databases for hits is crucial because as many as half of all sex offenders are serial rapists who sometimes travel, committing crimes as they move.

That’s why making testing kits a priority sends a clear message to women who have been assaulted that “what happens to you matters,” said Hargitay, who is president of the victims advocacy group Joyful Heart Foundation.

Awards for the grants range from $97,305 to the Travis County sheriff’s office in Texas, which will test approximately 148 kits, to $1,999,982 to the Georgia state Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which will test approximately 3,108 kits.

Part of the reason for the backlogs is the cost of testing the kits, which can run around $800 to $1,000 each. Some cities such as Detroit have turned to private donations to raise money to clear the backlogs.

But Vance’s office has established agreements with two private forensic labs to secure competitive rates, bringing the cost down for those tested with grant funds to less than $675 per kit, significantly cheaper than the nationwide average.

Officials also urged state governors and legislatures to eliminate statutes of limitations so that kits that match against the FBI database for crimes committed sometimes decades ago won’t go unpunished.

“We are prepared to have their back,” said Biden of sexual assaults still waiting for evidence to be tested. “We are prepared to stand with them.”

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Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to show that Lynch is the U.S. attorney general, not U.S. attorney.

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