2015-2016 Accomplishments Advocacy

Since 2010, Joyful Heart has made eliminating the backlog of hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in the United States our top advocacy priority. We have worked tirelessly to advocate for rape kit reforms at the local, state, and federal levels and to raise awareness about this issue across all disciplines. This year, as the movement to end the untested rape kit backlog continued to gain momentum, we have worked to keep the needs of survivors at the forefront of all legislation and policies. 

While we continue to keep eliminating the rape kit backlog our primary focus, we have also expanded our policy reach and engaged on a key issues that are related to our broader mission, including policies to ensure the rights of survivors.

Creating Survivor-Centered Victim Notification Responses

Given the lack of scholarly research on best practice recommendations for victim notification, Joyful Heart partnered with Dr. Courtney Ahrens of California State University at Long Beach to bring together the voices of survivors and criminal justice, medical, academic, clinical, and advocacy professionals to establish a guide for jurisdictions to notify victims about their untested kits.

At the beginning of April, we released the full report of our findings: Navigating Notification: A Guide to Re-engaging Sexual Assault Survivors Affected by the Untested Rape Kit Backlog, to help jurisdictions create survivor-centered, trauma-informed policies and protocols for notifying survivors.   

Through a strategic traditional and digital media outreach campaign, we brought more than 2,000 unique visitors to our victim notification page.  

In May, we conducted a webinar about the methodology and findings from our report and conveyed how best to translate this important research into practice. More than 200 participants joined us for the presentation, including  law enforcement, prosecutors, lab personnel, and survivors. The webinar can be watched online at endthebacklog.org.org/vn

In June, the Joyful Heart Policy team hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill about victim notification in cases affected by the untested rape kit backlog. More than 50 Congressional staffers, advocates, and donors gathered to learn about the trends that are being seen across the country, how reform is taking shape in specific cities, and why federal investments such as the new Sexual Assault Kit Initiative are already making a difference. 

Fellow advocates from RAINN and Natasha’s Justice Project joined us to speak about their work and the importance of the SAKI Initiative. The event was sponsored by Congressman Mike Honda (CA) who has been a strong congressional champion of the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative appropriations.

Leading Federal Advocacy

Mariska Hargitay speaks at the 2015 press conference alongside Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr.

In September 2015, Mariska stood beside Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance as they awarded both the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office grants—nearly $80 million—to more than 40 law enforcement agencies in 20 states to address their backlogs of untested rape kits.  

Forty-one million dollars of this funding is the result of an historic Congressional investment. In 2014, Congress approved nearly $41 million in the FY15 Commerce, Justice and Science spending bill to provide local communities with resources to support a multidisciplinary community response teams engaged in the comprehensive reform of jurisdictions’ approaches to sexual assault cases. The funding allows jurisdictions to test backlogged kits, investigate and prosecute cases connected to the backlog, and address the need for victim notification and re-engagement within the criminal justice system. Joyful Heart serves as a technical advisor for this grant program.

Additionally, the Manhattan DA’s Office allocated $38 million in grants to help jurisdictions address their backlogs through testing previously unanalyzed rape kits. Joyful Heart also served as a technical advisor for this initiative. Throughout the summer, we helped to review and evaluate the applications that the District Attorney’s Office received.

This day alone resulted in 333 news stories and 26.9 million impressions on social media for the #ENDTHEBACKLOG hashtag. 

Sharing Expertise with Communities Working to End the Backlog 

Joyful Heart is part of a team selected to provide training and technical assistance to the Bureau of Justice Assistance grantees on their backlog reduction projects through Sexual Assault Kit Initiative. As project partners, we are working to ensure dissemination of promising practices, such as testing all kits. Joyful Heart’s role is to ensure the reform efforts are survivor-centered and trauma-informed. 

We participated in a number of grantee site visits including ones in Iowa, Delaware, Duluth, and Cleveland to work with local stakeholders to discuss processes and best practices and advise them as requested. Additionally, we advised the state crime lab of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation on a draft policy that will serve as a model for communities across the state. 

Providing Leadership at the White House 

Joyful Heart participated in a Summit hosted by the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, Council on Women and Girls, Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Domestic Policy Council on April 21. We joined more than 75 domestic violence and sexual assault advocates, law enforcement officers, local government officials, and technology and privacy experts to discuss how police open data initiatives can align with the privacy and safety concerns of intimate partner violence and sexual assault victims while promoting the transparency and accountability objectives of city governments and law enforcement agencies.

On October 15, we joined more than 50 leaders from the field for a White House roundtable called Domestic and Sexual Violence and the Criminal Justice System. The purpose of the summit was to discuss how to improve federal, state and local governmental efforts to enhance the law enforcement response to domestic and sexual violence.. The day included brief presentations from Bea Hanson, the Principal Deputy Director of the United States Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women; Tina Tchen, Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls; and speech delivered by Vice President Joe Biden about the need for continued reform.

Mariska Hargitay delivered an address about the rape kit backlog to an audience of an estimated 5,000 advocates and thought-leaders from around the country at the White House’s United State of Women Conference.

Moving Reform Forward across the Country 

Our Advocacy team worked to assist jurisdictions across the country in tracking and analyzing legislation and supporting bills that will help eliminate the backlog of untested kits. The "Drafter's Checklist for Rape Kit Reform," published on our website, serves as a guide for state legislators working on rape kit reform bills. We provided advice and expertise to the sponsors and local advocates in Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, and Oregon and advised 15 states overall. Rape kit reform laws were enacted in 13 states during the 2016 legislative sessions including Florida, Georgia, Hawai'i, Idaho, Kentucky, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Virginia, and Washington. 

The rape kit bill in Hawai‘i is signed into lawIn Hawai'i, our birthplace, we worked closely with the legislative staffers to ensure the law would address the major issues around rape kit processing; testified nine times; tweeted and reached more than 175,000 users on social media; collaborated with local advocates and survivors; engaged the media; and supported the efforts of the Women’s Caucus. The passage of this legislation was a major victory for survivors in Hawai‘i. 

Joyful Heart is working with the Police Foundation and the National Center for Victims of Crime on a grant project that is examining the mandatory rape kit testing law in Texas. The project’s objective is to determine whether the new laws are increasing the rates of reporting of sexual assault cases, and whether the rates of arrests, prosecutions and convictions have increased. The Police Foundation will assess the impact of the laws in four jurisdictions: Fort Worth, Austin, Dallas and Arlington. The team is currently analyzing data from the police departments with the goal of recognizing trends related to rape kit submission. To date, it’s clear that submissions of rape kits increased dramatically in the year after the mandatory rape kit testing law was enacted. 

Joyful Heart gave the keynote speech at the second annual Sexual Assault Kit (SAK) Summit for Cities in Memphis. The second annual convening of local jurisdictions working toward rape kit reform, experienced tremendous growth from only four jurisdictions attending in 2014 to 26 in the fall of 2015. The goal of the summit was to share strategies, tips, and tools to assist jurisdictions working to clear their backlog of untested kits including testing, investigating crimes, prosecuting offenders, and engaging survivors in the process. Representatives from the Department of Justice and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office shared information about their respective rape kit testing grant programs.

The Accountability Project: Investigating and Uncovering Backlogs 

In July 2015, USA TODAY released the results of its investigation into the rape kit backlog, revealing over 70,000 untested rape kits across over 1,000 law enforcement agencies.  Joyful Heart provided extensive background on the piece.  In the weeks following, Joyful Heart's Advocacy team communicated with law enforcement agencies cited in USA TODAY’s investigation to verify their numbers of untested rape kits. In one case, our follow-up revealed an even larger backlog: Albuquerque, New Mexico initially reported only 3 untested rape kits in the USA TODAY inquiry, but our efforts uncovered 835 untested kits. 

In mid-December, Joyful Heart’s pro-bono lawyers at Goodwin Procter LLP sent out public records requests to the 25 new jurisdictions across the United States as part of The Accountability Project, our project to uncover untested rape kit backlogs in jurisdictions across the country. Since then, we have received initial responses from 21 cities, 11 of which have revealed a total of 4,675 newly identified untested kits. We will continue to work with Goodwin Procter to uncover the extent of the backlog in these cities.

Since we began The Accountability Project, we have discovered more than 36,675 untested rape kits.

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