NEW YORK CITY — The Manhattan district attorney said Monday he will allocate $35 million to help test some of the hundreds of thousands of rape kits currently sitting in storage across the U.S.
"What stands in the way of testing those kits is quite simply money," Cyrus Vance said at a news conference.
A rape kit is a small box containing biological evidence taken from a survivor's body shortly after a sexual assault. The process of collecting that evidence can be long and invasive, but it can also help identify the assailant.
"After a rape, a woman's body is in fact a crime scene," Vance said. "The evidence collected from that crime scene is what is called a rape kit. To endure this collection of evidence is to endure an hours-long ordeal." It can involve "vaginal, anal, and oral swabs; and blood and urine specimens," he added.
Testing a rape kit can cost up to $1,000, and many jurisdictions don't have the resources to do so, Vance said. The exact number of untested rape kits in the U.S. is unknown, but the Department of Justice estimates that there are more than 400,000. In Detroit, a city notoriously short of cash, there are more than 11,000.
The new program — which will use funds from forfeited assets, including the billionaire settlements recently paid by BNP Paribas, France's largest bank — will allow law enforcement agencies from across the county to apply for grants to test their kits and create databases with the evidence.
Vance said that he had decided to implement the nation-wide program because "rape is not a local crime." People who commit sexual assault once are likely to do so again, he said, often in another city. Identifying and arresting assailants after they commit their first offense is essential not only to bring justice to the original victim, but also to prevent further crimes, he said.
As an example, Detroit prosecutor Kym Worthy said that by testing just 1,600 of the city's kits, her office identified 127 serial rapists who had committed sex crimes in 23 states.
"Rapists know no boundaries," Worthy said. "They could come to your city."
Also at the news conference were activists and advocates who praised the initiative.
"This commitment is nothing short than heroic," said Mariska Hargitay, the star of Law And Order: SVU and the president of the Joyful Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for survivors of sexual assault. "Testing rape kits sends a fundamental and crucial message to victims of sexual violence: You matter. What happened to you matters. Your cases matter."