Sen. Kamala Harris said Thursday that if she wins the White House she’ll push Congress to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in her first term to help state law enforcement agencies process tens of thousands of untested rape kits that could help police identify perpetrators of sexual assaults.
The rape kit backlog has long been a stain on American law enforcement agencies. By some estimates, the nationwide backlog includes more than 225,000 cases in which evidence from reported sexual assaults has gone untested.
The Harris campaign in announcing the policy proposal said it would make great strides in cutting the backlog an an annual cost of about $100 million, on par with “what taxpayers have reportedly spent on President Trump’s golf trips."
“The federal government can and should prioritize justice for survivors of sex abuse, assault and rape,” Harris said in a statement. “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. We need the same focus at the national level to pursue justice and help hold predators accountable.”
The kits contain forensic evidence collected from survivors in a painstaking and invasive process that can last four to six hours. Testing can yield DNA evidence that helps identify suspects, bolster prosecutions and in some cases exonerate the wrongly accused.
But in big and small law enforcement agencies around the country, rape kits frequently go untested.
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In a detailed nationwide inventory of untested rape kits, USA TODAY Network journalists and TEGNA TV stations in a 2015 investigation found at least 70,000 neglected kits through an open-records campaign of more than 1,000-plus police agencies, a small fraction of the nation’s more than 18,000 departments.
Under the Harris proposal, states would receive additional funding for testing if they conduct an annual count and report of untested rape kits. The plan also would require law enforcement agencies submit rape kits “within a short time frame,” update victims who want to know about the status of testing of their rape kits, and would increase the availability of rape kits for law enforcement, particularly in remote and rural areas.
The backlog problem is a two-fold issue, according to advocates for sexual assault victims. Rape kits are collected and booked into evidence, but detectives and prosecutors fail to request DNA analysis. The roughly $1,000 cost to analyze each kit is among the hindrances for police.
The second part of the problem occurs in crime laboratory facilities, where rape kits that have been submitted for testing are awaiting DNA analysis. Many kits that are submitted to crime labs are not tested in a timely manner, creating the second part of the backlog, according to the advocacy group End the Backlog.
Law enforcement officials said the most common reason kits are not tested is there is not a prosecutable case, usually due to a lack of cooperation from victims. But perceived lack of cooperation from a victim is not a valid reason to jettison forensic evidence, advocates argue.
Congress has appropriated well over $1 billion over the last decade to help pay for the testing of rape kits.
The federal grant program since its creation in 2004 has led to the processing of more than 860,000 cases and uploading of more than 376,000 DNA profiles, according to the office of Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has championed legislation funding the grants.
The push by Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, has come as she’s in the midst of making a more concerted effort to spotlight her career as a prosecutor in a positive light.
She’s moved up in the polls following a strong performance in last month’s debate in which she aggressively engaged frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden. Harris now could see her record as a prosecutor face more scrutiny.
She’s already faced criticism from some pundits and liberal activists who argue she had a less-than-progressive record as a prosecutor and attorney general. Among the issues critics point to is Harris backing state legislation under which parents whose children were found to be habitually truant in elementary school could be prosecuted and opposing a bill requiring her office to investigate shootings involving officers.
Biden has said that he won’t directly criticize his Democratic rivals. But former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Biden surrogate, told Politico this week that other campaigns are carefully looking for missteps in her prosecutorial career and will pounce on mistakes.
“They’re going to find them in her dossier,” Rendell told Politico. “So be careful what you wish for.”
But as she surges in the polls, some supporters say that they find the criticism predictable yet overblown.
“She was a prosecutor, and that comes with a territory,” said Sophia Howes, 27, who attended a Harris fundraiser this week in New York City. “You’re not going to find another prosecutor that’s going to have a clean record.”