Republicans and Democrats in Tennessee are calling for funding to speed up DNA testing in criminal cases while political leaders debate how to respond to violence across the state.
As the debate continues, Tennessee Republicans have proposed a new federal crime funding bill to the Senate, pairing more controversial legislation pushing back against recent criminal justice reforms and “soft-on-crime” policies with bipartisan proposals to address the national DNA testing backlog and improve rape kit processing with more funding and oversight.
In 2021, Axios reported that forensic scientists testing crime scene evidence for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) each handle an average of 382 cases per year.
As TBI scientists’ workload grew, DNA test and evidence wait times skyrocketed. The agency reported that some testing took more than nine months in 2019-20. In that year, the TBI requested funding for 40 new forensic scientists and 10 administrative positions. About half of those positions were funded in a move that local politicians say may have had serious consequences.
Lawmakers say reducing testing delays for rape kits and other DNA evidence could help police solve cases faster and get dangerous offenders off the street. The long turn-arounds slow down criminal cases, which can hurt both defendants and victims.
This is an issue where Tenneesse Democrats and Republicans agree: Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie argued Friday that if TBI had gotten the money it requested in 2021, the state’s rape kit stockpile wouldn’t be backlogged for months and, most directly,
Dixie argues that a man charged with kidnapping and killing Memphis kindergarten teacher Eliza Fletcher would have been flagged in a rape kit for a previous rape he allegedly committed before he was able to kill her, the Tenneessee Lookout reported.
Republican and Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton agreed on the substance of the issue, despite otherwise being at crosspurposes with Dixie on most topics, and said he wants to “provide the resources for TBI to get the job done” and bring down the turnaround for rape kits to 30 days or less.
“For it to take six months to 12 months [to process a rape kit] is atrocious,” Sexton said.
Following Fletcher’s murder and the reveal that her alleged killer was connected by DNA to a rape kit whose testing was long-delayed by Tennessee’s processing backlog, Republican senators Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty introduced a proposed bill last week to tackle the nationwide rape kit backlog with federal funding, Mainstreet Nashville reported.
“Tragically, the rape kit was returned the same day that Fletcher’s body was discovered with DNA allegedly matching that of Fletcher’s killer,” Blackburn said. “Had it not taken so long, Eliza Fletcher would be alive today and her killer would be behind bars.”
However, the bill, called the “Restoring Law and Order Act,” does not target rape-kit backlogs alone, and language announcing the proposed legislation positions it as a rejection of “defund the police” reform activists and ‘weak on crime’ prosecutors and judges, referencing partially untrue claims about the current Biden administration’s envolvement in “the defund-the-police movement” and misleading claims about the recent Inflation Reduction Act, which allocated federal funds for nearly 87,000 new positions at the agency in preparation for a wave of retirements across positions including both agents, staffers, IT support and other spots within the IRS workforce.
In addition to the bipartisan goal of targeting the national rape kit backlog, the grant program proposed by the draft Restoring Law and Order Act would
- *allocate funds to hire more police officers and detectives across the country;
- *fund agency-level initiatives targeting drug-related crimes, particularly related to fentanyl, and
- “detain and deport illegal aliens” who have committed crimes while in the U.S.
It would also rescind funding allocated to the IRS and attempt to reinforce bail and pretrial detention policies that have been reformed or challenged in states across the country, goals within the justice system that split opinion inside and outside of the Republican party and are unlikely to garner mainstream Democratic support.
Audrey Nielsen is a TCR staff contributor