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Congress stalls on rape-kit testing

  • Article by: Melinda Henneberger
  • Washington Post
  • December 21, 2012 - 12:20 PM

Who could possibly hold up a bill guaranteed to get a bunch of rapists off the street for the cost of zero dollars? If your guess was the 112th Congress, you won - but America's women didn't.

There wasn't even a partisan split on this one; when you've got New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney and the conservative Concerned Women for America not only marching in the same direction but hopping around sending up alarm flares together, it's fair to say you've got yourself a consensus.

Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and Allen West, R-Fla., both supported this law; need I go on?

Apparently, yes. The SAFER Act of 2012 was supposed to force the federal government to spend $117 million in already authorized funds to process some of the 400,000 rape kits sitting around collecting dust in evidence rooms around the country.

The money is being spent now, but on other things, and this bill would require officials to use at least 75 percent of it for its intended purpose. ("Slush fund" is such an unhappy phrase, but Congress found two years ago that some of the money had been spent on conferences and processing DNA for other crimes.)

This would have been a perfect way for the GOP-controlled Congress to end a year in which not one but two Republican Senate candidates made offensive comments about rape.

While that DNA evidence remains untouched, predators can have themselves a jolly old holiday doing what they do; as Maloney, who wrote the original 2004 bill that was supposed to end the kit-testing backlog, says, "Rapists are very sick people; they keep going until they're caught."

The Senate version, sponsored by John Cornyn, R-Tex., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., still needs the blessing of both Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee.

Both have previously voted in favor of an even tougher version of the bill. Grassley just wanted to make sure that "Congress isn't forcing law enforcement to unnecessarily review kits," an aide said, in cases where there's plenty of other evidence, for example.

The House legislation was proposed by Ted Poe, R-Tex., who as a judge back home in Houston heard more than 25,000 felony cases in his 22 years on the bench. As a former prosecutor, too, he knows from experience that this particular brand of offender does "everything they can to harm women emotionally, to steal their souls - and knowing who did it is very important to healing."

So why didn't his bill zip through Congress, as an early Christmas present to survivors? "I can't answer why it's not moving," he told me Thursday.

"I've been talking to the Judiciary Committee and they just keep - the answer is, 'We're working on it.' "

Or they were. If the bill isn't passed before the current Congress adjourns - now highly unlikely, since the House knocked off for Christmas on Thursday night and probably won't be back this year - legislators will have to start over from scratch in January.

As the clock wound down, the legislation was stuck in the House Judiciary Committee, waiting for the sign-off of Poe's fellow Texan and fellow Republican Lamar Smith, who chairs the committee, to put it on the calendar.

Penny Nance, who heads Concerned Women for America, is one of several major proponents of the bill who suggested that Smith's committee staff was letting minor concerns effectively kill a bill that could save lives by preventing attacks: "I know there is a lot of well-intentioned staff, but they've got to get their big-boy pants on and get this done."

House Judiciary Committee aides argued that they were already working until midnight every night trying to rush 20 bills into law before the session ended.

The nut of the problem, though, centered on a provision in the law that would create a national registry that, as originally envisioned, would have allowed anyone to see the backlog in his or her area with just a few mouse clicks.

"We think we don't publicly post that kind of information on a website," a House Judiciary aide said. "It could show that such-and-such law enforcement agency has X rape kits untested in their evidence locker, but it doesn't paint the whole picture of why they weren't tested" and might give an unfairly negative impression.

Not nearly as negative, though, as the impression that preventing more attacks is just one more thing Congress couldn't manage to act on - even at no cost at all. And in theory, at least, with everybody on board.

 

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