ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The state and the city of Albuquerque could soon lose a key source of federal funding that’s critical to work inside crime labs if a federal bill doesn’t make it through Congress.
For the last four months, the “Debbie Smith Act” has stalled in both the U.S. House and Senate. The act, which first passed in 2004, provides millions of dollars in recurring funds for DNA testing toward various rape kit backlogs across the United States.
Without action from Congress, the act is currently slated to expire by the end of the month. The mother of murdered New Mexico college student Katie Sepich is now pushing federal lawmakers for help.
“DNA evidence is the truth,” said Jayann Sepich, the mother of Katie Sepich.
Jayann has made it her life’s work to help DNA labs in New Mexico and the rest of the U.S. in memory of her daughter Katie.
Katie Sepich, 22, was raped and murdered in 2003. Her killer was only able to be identified through DNA testing more than a year after Katie’s murder.
“We need to get to the bottom of who perpetrators truly are,” said Sepich.
Speaking to KRQE News 13 via Skype Wednesday, Sepich is among the DNA activists now worried about the future of nearly $200 million in federal funding that’s been earmarked by the “Debbie Smith Act.”
“It’s really important that we get this reauthorized, that we keep things moving,” said Sepich.
The Debbie Smith Act has stalled in Congress since May as both the U.S. House and Senate have competing versions of a reauthorization of the bill. The Senate passed a “clean” version of the act’s reauthorization in May, while the House passed its own version of the reauthorization by tying it to “Violence Against Women Act.” House Democrats don’t expect that Senate leadership will call that bill for a vote anytime soon.
Without reauthorization, the funds outlined for Debbie Smith Act will no longer be protected, meaning the funds could be diverted elsewhere.
“No one is opposed to this spending, everyone knows how important it is, but for whatever reason, there are those that think there are other things that they can get passed if they hold this bill hostage,” said Sepich.
The act provides more than $300,000 to the New Mexico state crime lab each year and more than $450,000 to APD’s crime annually.
A spokesman for APD told KRQE News 13 they’ve used the funds for yearly mandated training and to get about 75% of the way through the rape kit backlog. The department says if this bill was extended another five years, the lab could benefit as it continues to reduce not only the sexual assault and violent crimes DNA backlogs, but also the DNA property crime backlog.
Sepich says she’s hoping her voice can help lead lawmakers to pass a reauthorization of the Debbie Smith Act. Sepich says she specifically sees the Senate’s version of the bill (SB 820) as the most likely to pass, calling on House leadership and New Mexico Congressman Ben Ray Lujan (D) to pass the bill.
“I’m hoping that he can go talk to the other leaders in the house and say look, this is too important, we need to just get this passed,” said Sepich.
Congressman Lujan, who’s also the Assistant House Speaker told KRQE News 13 Friday he expects the House to pass Senate Bill 820 by the end of the week. The congressman sent KRQE News 13 the following statement.
“The Debbie Smith Act provides critical funding to support the processing of DNA rape kits and to bring criminals to justice. The House should pass this legislation before the authorization for the grant program expires next week. Eradicating violence against women is absolutely vital – and is exactly why the House included the reauthorization of the Debbie Smith Act in the Violence Against Women Act we passed nearly 200 days ago. The Violence Against Women Act continues to be held hostage by Senator Mitch McConnell where it hasn’t even been brought forward for a vote. This is a dereliction of duty by Senator McConnell. However, the urgency to protect women from violence and catch serial rapists can’t be understated, and is why I’ll continue fighting to pass the Debbie Smith Act, Violence Against Women Act, and other legislation to protect women and ensure justice.”–Congressman Ben Ray Lujan, (D) New Mexico