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NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. pledged on Wednesday $35 million in funding to help eliminate the backlog of untested evidence in sexual assault cases, or "rape kits", in cities across the United States.
The analysis of DNA evidence contained in such kits will help resolve thousands of sexual assault cases across the country, Vance said, and help give victims closure and justice.
"Around the country, what happens to those kits? What we hear from police and prosecutors is that they want badly to test these kits but they lack the funds," Vance said at a news conference.
It can cost up to $1,000 dollars to process a rape kit.
The city of New York has eliminated what once was a backlog of 17,000 rape kits but that's not the situation in many other U.S. cities, Vance said.
For example, there are 12,000 untested kits in Memphis, Tennessee, and over 4,000 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Vance said agencies across the country will be able to apply to receive funding to tackle their backlogs and that money will be allocated following a rigorous and fair bidding process.
Jurisdictions in the state of New York will be given priority when and if they request funding. The money comes from asset forfeiture funds secured in recent sanctions cases involving several international financial institutions.
The exact number of backlogged rape kits nationwide is unknown, but recent estimates put it at around 100,000, the Washington Post reported in June.
Few states and no federal agencies require that police departments track or count the untested rape kits in their storage facilities.
Vance urged the U.S. Congress to pass a proposal which would allocate $41 million to a new program to help local communities investigate and prosecute cases arising from the processing of backlogged rape kits and prevent further backlogs.
Testing rape kits can corroborate a victim's testimony, identify the perpetrator, or exonerate someone who's been wrongfully accused of a sex crime.
"We owe (this) to the victims," Vance said, noting that one in six U.S. women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime.
"I was raped, robbed and sodomized at gunpoint while I was a college student," said activist Natasha Alexenko, a survivor of sexual assault.
Speaking at the press conference, Alexenko said her rape kit sat on a shelf for 9-1/2 years but that, due to the efforts made by the city of New York to eliminate its backlog, her assailant was caught and is now in prison.
"At long last—yes, after too much time, but at long last—survivors hear the message: You do matter," said Mariska Hargitay, actress and founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation.
"What happened to you matters. Your cases matter. And testing communicates to criminals that they are no longer able to offend with impunity."
The charity, which provides assistance for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, will provide technical assistance and strategic guidance to Vance's office in implementing the initiative.
Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Lisa Anderson