Her proposal would give states the money to eliminate the backlog.
The current backlog in rape kits underscores a devastating gap in the criminal justice system: In the last decade, hundreds of thousands of rape kits — which include physical and DNA evidence gathered from rape victims — have gone untested because law enforcement agencies around the country are not prioritizing their testing or do not have the resources to do so.
The latest policy proposal from presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) attempts to address the backlog by allocating $1 billion in funding to help states tackle it.
The testing of these kits has been crucial to identifying perpetrators: When effectively conducted, they can help demonstrate an individual’s culpability in sex crimes. A recent effort to analyze thousands of untested rape kits, spearheaded by Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance, has resulted in the reopening of cold cases and the convictions of 64 attackers.
Covering the costs of testing can be difficult for some local governments, however. According to the advocacy group, End the Backlog, it costs roughly $1,000 to $1,500 to test a rape kit.
The funding that Harris is proposing would help states field these costs and is intended to eliminate the delay some local officials are currently experiencing in processing this evidence.
The money would also come with some strings attached intended to improve the timing and transparency around the analysis of rape kits. States would not be able to access the funds, for example, without agreeing to review rape kits in a shorter timeframe and provide an annual report about the number of kits that are tested.
Harris is the first 2020 candidate to lay out a plan on this issue and raise the profile of this problem. It begins to target some of the financial and process barriers law enforcement has encountered when it comes to testing rape kits, putting pressure on a system that’s long failed to treat sexual assault allegations as a top priority.
What Kamala Harris’s proposal would do
At its core, Harris’s proposal would give states something they sorely need to process rape kits: money.
A rape kit includes the evidence that physicians and law enforcement gather after an individual reports a sexual assault. It’s put together following a medical exam, and can include samples of bodily fluids and garments.
As things stand right now, thousands of these kits are not tested at all. Either they remain on the shelves of police stations and don’t get sent to a testing facility, or they are sent and end up sitting on the shelves there.
This inaction is staggeringly dismissive of victims who submit to invasive exams in order to create these kits, and it also means that law enforcement is missing a major opportunity to identify perpetrators. Rape kits can help law enforcement craft DNA profiles of a potential suspect, and if the same DNA profile is associated with multiple crimes, police can use that information to determine whether they are connected.
One of the reasons for the backlog is simply the cost of testing the kits. Presently, law enforcement agencies rely heavily on the federal government for funding and often the budget that’s provided just isn’t enough.
Harris’s plan would attempt to address this problem, and another that’s led to the immense backlog: the lack of data and tracking on the status of untested kits.
In order to access the funds that this plan would offer, states would have to agree to share data about the kits, including allowing a rape victim to obtain information about where in the analysis process a kit is.
Harris’s plan would cost an estimated $100 million annually, a figure that the campaign noted is less than the amount that President Donald Trump reportedly spends to go on golfing trips. The campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment about how the plan would be paid for.
This proposal is one that speaks to Harris’s past experience as a prosecutor. During her time as California attorney general, Harris made reducing the state’s backlog of rape kits a priority. In 2012, she announced that the state’s DOJ had begun processing rape kits within 30 days, compared to the 90 to 120-day window that it had previously operated within.
“As California’s Attorney General, I committed resources and attention to clearing a backlog of 1,300 untested rape kits at state-run labs, and we got it done within my first year in office,” Harris said in a statement. “We need the same focus at the national level to pursue justice and help hold predators accountable.”
While parts of her California record remain controversial, Harris has highlighted her tenure as a state official on the campaign trail; she recently called out her experience as a prosecutor, emphasizing that her time in that role has prepared her to “prosecute the case” against Trump as president. The roll out of her plan to eliminate the backlog in rape kits continues this trend.
The backlog in rape kits is emblematic of the way law enforcement treats sexual assault
Some advocates who have fought to eliminate the backlog in rape kits like Scott Berkowitz, the president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), believe that an increase in resources will help address the delay in processing rape kits.
“The backlog has been a huge and ongoing problem, we’ve been making progress on it over time, but having that large of a federal commitment would do wonders for testing the rest of the cases that haven’t been tested yet,” Berkowitz told CNN.
A $38 million grant program led by Vance demonstrates just how effective such extra funding can be. As of this spring, this money has helped test 55,000 rape kits.
Many activists who support rape victims have also argued, however, that law enforcement’s neglect toward rape kits is emblematic of the way officials have historically treated sexual assault: allegations are often downplayed, not believed, or shunted aside.
“Part of the reason rape kits aren’t tested is because rape isn’t taken seriously,” advocate Natasha Alexenko previously told The Daily Beast. “The more we talk about it, the more we can ensure that the stigma is removed and then it will become commonplace for law enforcement to test every rape kit.”
Funding is likely not enough to change this culture entirely, though the attention that Harris’s proposal is bringing to the issue could contribute to a shift in how law enforcement and local governments prioritize the subject. The additional conditions that are tied to the money, too, could incentivize states to focus more attention on informing sexual assault victims about the status of their rape kits while also more closely monitoring how the kits are evaluated.