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White House, NYC pledge $79M to test rape kits

Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on Thursday in New York City. During the event, Biden, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and actress Mariska Hargitay announced almost $80 million in grants to help eliminate a vast nationwide backlog of rape kits. AP Images

Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on Thursday in New York City. During the event, Biden, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and actress Mariska Hargitay announced almost $80 million in grants to help eliminate a vast nationwide backlog of rape kits. AP Images

NEW YORK — The White House and New York City’s district attorney pledged a combined $79 million on Thursday to help clear the tens of thousands of rape kits that have gone untested across the country.

The White House announced that $41 million in federal funds plus $38 million from the Manhattan prosecutor will go toward clearing backlogs in 27 states.

“Rape kits are an essential tool in modern crime fighting — not only for the victim, but, for the entire community,” said Vice President Joe Biden, who joined U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. to announce the awards.

“Law & Order: SVU” actress Mariska Hargitay, president of the Joyful Heart Foundation, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, called the announcement a historic moment.

Appearing at the announcement, Hargitay said testing the kits sends a clear message to women who have been assaulted: “What happens to you matters.”

Local law enforcement agencies applied for the grants. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. is using asset forfeiture funds toward the effort.

Awards 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.

It’s estimated that tens of thousands of DNA samples taken after sexual assaults have gone untested. Part of the issue 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.

“For anyone who has felt isolated and afraid, left out and left behind as a result of a sexual crime,” Lynch said, “our message is clear: We will not forget you. We will not abandon you. You are not alone.”

The district attorney’s office said it has established agreements with two private forensic labs to secure competitive rates for testing kits. Kits tested through the initiative will cost less than $675 per kit, significantly less than the estimated nationwide average of $1,000 to $1,500 per kit.

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