Debbie Smith Act
Name of law: Debbie Smith Act
Why it matters: The Debbie Smith Act creates the primary program to end the backlog of untested and unanalyzed DNA evidence.
When it passed: 2004; reauthorized in 2008 and 2014
DNA evidence is often critical for achieving justice in crimes of sexual violence, but there are still challenges in the way it’s used to hold perpetrators accountable. The backlog of unanalyzed DNA evidence, often referred to as the rape kit backlog, is a major impediment to prosecuting perpetrators of sexual assault. The backlog includes evidence never sent to a lab for testing, often called the "hidden backlog," as well as evidence that arrived at a crime lab but was never tested. The Debbie Smith Act, named after a survivor who eventually found justice through DNA evidence, was the nation’s first piece of legislation aimed at ending the backlog.
1. The Debbie Smith Act provides funding for crime labs to process DNA evidence.
The Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program provides funding to support public crime laboratories’ work to build capacity and process DNA evidence, including evidence collected in rape kits. Since its enactment in 2004, the Debbie Smith Act has been renewed twice with overwhelming bipartisan support. While the Debbie Smith Act is authorized to provide up to $151 million in funding per year through Fiscal Year 2019, Congress appropriated just $117 million in FY 2015. Through amendments passed in 2013 as the SAFER Act, the Debbie Smith Act raised the minimum amount of funding that must go to testing and capacity-building activities. In addition, the Act supports audits of evidence awaiting analysis at law enforcement agencies and charges the Justice Department with the task of developing national testing guidelines.
2. The Debbie Smith Act requires that states create plans for the reduction of the backlog.
The Debbie Smith Act distributes certain funds, often referred to as Debbie Smith grants, to all states. Grantees must comply with the rules that regulate distribution and use of funds, including creating explicit, transparent plans for the reduction of the backlog and meeting privacy standards when DNA evidence is collected from crime scenes or sexual assault forensic exams.
3. The Debbie Smith Act helps to strengthen the national DNA database used to help solve crimes.
When forensic evidence is collected and processed, a DNA profile is developed and added to CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System. Law enforcement officials can compare this profile against state databases of convicted and arrested profiles in the hopes of finding a match. Every new sample that is added bolsters the database and increases the chance of convicting perpetrators of past, current, and future crimes.
Survivor Story: Debbie Smith
In 1989 Debbie Smith was sexually assaulted by a stranger who broke into her home. Although she underwent a sexual assault forensic exam, the DNA evidence went unanalyzed for over five years. In 1994, the forensic evidence was finally entered into CODIS, the FBI’s national database, and yielded a “hit” identifying the perpetrator. At the time, the perpetrator was already incarcerated, serving 161 years for robbing and abducting two women. He was brought to trial and eventually convicted for the rape of Debbie Smith.