Pointing to the existence of hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits across the country, Vice President Joe Biden told advocates in Baltimore County on Monday that the Obama administration is committed to increasing funding to help clear a backlog that has left victims waiting for justice.
Police have long wrestled with the cost and painstaking effort involved with DNA analysis, even as advocates note that the kits can be used to prevent future crimes as well as to solve open cases of sexual assault.
"Thousands of women right now are looking over their shoulder. Thousands of them wonder, 'Will he come back?'" Biden said at the Maryland State Police Forensic Science Laboratory in Pikesville.
"We should make the money available," he said. "We can restore women's lives."
Biden, who as a senator drafted the Violence Against Women Act two decades ago, noted that Congress approved $41 million in new grant funding last year to help reduce the rape kit backlog — estimated to be at about 400,000 kits nationwide.
President Barack Obama has called for continuing that funding in the next fiscal year and adding $20 million to identify new ways to address the backlog.
Delays in testing kits drew renewed attention in Maryland last year after The Baltimore Sun reported on the case of a serial rapist who slipped through the cracks. The man raped a woman in 2012; by the time police processed the DNA nearly two years later, he had attacked again.
State law requires investigators to collect DNA from anyone convicted of a felony or any of several nonfelony charges.
A Baltimore police spokeswoman said the department has made progress on a backlog that at one point reached 1,500 cases.
There are now about 150 cases in the queue, Lt. Sarah E. Connolly said. It takes Baltimore about six months to process a kit.
Connolly said the city intends to apply for the new federal grant funding to reduce those numbers still further.
"With state-of-the-art technology we will be better outfitted to assist in the testing of rape kits, the investigation of incidents and providing closure for sexual assault victims," Connolly said in a statement. "With additional funding we will be better equipped to continue to meet those needs."
Advocates have applauded the new grants, which were announced by the Justice Department this month. One of the programs will award up to 12 grants worth as much as $2 million each.
The actress Mariska Hargitay founded the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004 to serve those who have experienced sexual assault.
"At long last, survivors will hear the message: You matter," she said in a statement.
Biden toured the forensic science laboratory with Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County, a former prosecutor.
The lawmakers peered through windows as technicians in white lab coats analyzed DNA samples.
"It's a lot of steps," Mikulski said to Biden. "You can see how labor-intensive it is."
Daniel Katz, director of the Forensic Sciences Division, said the facility processes about 650 cases a year. About 20 percent involve rape kits. He said the state does not have a backlog.
"We've got to make sure there is no backlog anywhere in the United Sates," Mikulski said.
As chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she helped shepherd the expanded grant funding through the Senate. Mikulski lost the chair when Republicans took control of the Senate in January.
Determining the national backlog is complicated by inconsistent reporting among police departments in Maryland and across the country. Legislation pending in the General Assembly would require local departments to audit and report the number of rape kits in their custody.
Mikulski noted improvements over the past several decades in the way sexual assault cases are reported. Hospitals are increasingly prepared to help women who are victims of rape and other crimes — and to collect evidence.
Laura Clary, a forensic nurse and the clinical program manager for the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Program at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, said her hospital has 12 nurses equipped to respond to sexual assault and domestic violence cases.
Clary said one of the greatest challenges is retaining forensic nurses and training new ones.
"There's not a lot of training out there," she said.
Even when a DNA match is made between a suspect and an alleged rape, police and prosecutors do not file charges automatically.
Law enforcement officials say a match can help prove that sexual contact took place, but investigators often will not move forward with a case without the victim's cooperation.
A Baltimore Sun investigation in 2010 showed prosecutors struggle to win guilty verdicts even in cases with DNA evidence.