Gender equality in elected office sets the stage for gender equity on boards and commissions, as well as legislation that improves the lives of women and children. And U.S. Senator Kamala Harris is no exception.
As Harris has risen through the pipeline of elected offices, she has focused on a range of criminal justice issues—including eliminating the rape kit backlog.
When I retired from elected office, I became involved with an organization called Human Rights Watch (HRW)—known for their commitment to “ending abuses in all corners of the world.” The issue that drew my attention to HRW was the rape kit backlog.
The Rape Kit Backlog: New York and Los Angeles
The rape kit backlog first came to national attention in 1999 in New York City. Thousands of unopened and untested kits were discovered in storage units in the city. The New York District Attorney committed to ending the backlog.
Within four years, the backlog was eliminated and all the kits had been sent to laboratories to be analyzed. In addition, a special cold case unit was established to investigate when evidence was found. Two hundred cases were pursued by the special unit. Political will and leadership prevailed in New York City, but current law and police practices varied from state to state.
In 2008, Sara Tofte, an HRW researcher, came to Los Angeles to work on the rape kit backlog. The LA investigation began with Tofte interviewing various police departments in Los Angeles city and county.
There were 48 departments with a backlog of 12,000 untested kits. Women activists lobbied elected officials. The media covered the issue. Soon elected officials and police departments responded by moving to eliminate the backlog.
More staff and private labs were funded to help eliminate the backlog. In March 2009, Human Rights Watch published a report titled “Testing Justice, the Rape Kit Backlog in LA City and County,” describing the story of the kits in LA. In 2011, Mayor Villaraigosa announced that the city’s more than 6,000 rape kits had been tested.
The ongoing challenge has been to get jurisdictions to test all kits, to move them quickly to labs and to have those labs do a fast turnaround to obtain the evidence in the kits. This has not occurred in many states; and in some jurisdictions there has been a shortage of rape kits.
Women Make a Difference for Women
In 2011, Kamala Harris was elected Attorney General of California. Since that time—up to today as a U.S. senator—Harris has been committed to resolving the rape kit backlog and ensuring an administrative and legislative system that brings justice to all who have been raped or sexually assaulted.
In 2011, making testing a priority, the Bureau of Forensic Services of the California Department of Justice (under Harris) issued a new protocol requiring three samples be collected from each rape kit and sent immediately to a lab for testing and analysis. The program is called rapid DNA or RADS. The samples are uploaded into a DNA Index (CODIS) and become part of a national data base that is crucial in solving criminal cases.
In 2012, AG Harris announced the Department of Justice had cleared a backlog of evidence. State labs would now be able to analyze kits within 30 days, “down from an average of 90 to 120 days.” How did they expedite the work? Robots, which were built to analyze the multiple samples collected by criminal justice departments and sexual response teams.
In 2015, Harris announced the California RADS program would receive $1.6 million from the New York district attorney’s initiative program to test sexual assault evidence. This time, the grant would help the AG’s efforts to support local law enforcement agencies and their local labs that continued to have backlogs.
Harris’s Plan to End the Backlog
In 2019, now serving as a U.S. Senator, Harris released a plan to end the national rape kit backlog within four years and ensure a backlog does not occur again.
Her plan included an annual report on the number of untested kits; testing of all new kits within a short time frame; informing victims the status of their investigation and increasing the availability of rape kits in remote areas.
Her approach is to provide states with the funding needed in order to process the kits. To that end, Harris proposed a budget of $1 billion. (According to End the Backlog, it costs roughly $1,000 to $1,500 to test one rape kit.) These funds will require improved turnaround time for delivering kits to labs and completing analysis of the evidence.
In 2019, 200,000 rape kits still remained unopened nationally. Harris has not forgotten the thousands of women who are victims of rape and sexual assault. We “should prioritize justice for survivors of sex abuse, assault and rape,” she said in a statement.
Her plan is to end the national backlog once and for all. Her commitment to this fight has made and will continue to make a difference for all women.
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