Harris proposes federal money to reduce untested rape kits

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Published 11:07 am PDT, Thursday, July 11, 2019

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., vowed Thursday to end the nationwide rape-kit backlog by the end of her first term as president by offering a total of $100 million in annual federal assistance to states that commit to improving their testing procedures.

Harris has sought to build momentum after the first Democratic debate by campaigning on a policy portfolio that targets gender and racial inequality. She has introduced plans to lessen the gender pay gap and the racial wealth gap, invest federal resources into teacher salaries, and test the constitutionality of state abortion laws.

According to the Joyful Heart Foundation, which seeks to assist crime victims, hundreds of thousands of rape kits collected from victims are sitting untested in evidence storage or crime labs nationwide. There are no national standards for keeping and testing the evidence, and labs are strained to keep up with the amount of kits coming in.

Efforts by individual jurisdictions to eliminate the backlogs have shown benefits: When New York committed to eliminating a backlog of 17,000 rape kits in 1999, the process yielded 200 arrests.

As attorney general of California, her role before she was elected to the Senate in 2016, Harris sought to help local police agencies to clear backlogs by introducing new testing technology. Her office’s Rapid DNA Service Team said it cleared all 1,300 untested rape kits in the state’s backlog in one year and earned national recognition and grants for its efforts.

Her new federal plan, funding for which would be subject to congressional approval, would require states that opt into her proposal to count and report their untested rape kits each year, test its cases in a timely fashion, keep victims informed and increase access to rape kits in underserved areas.

Harris would also encourage states to require law enforcement agencies to keep rape kits in evidence files until the statute of limitations for the alleged crime expires.

Harris’ campaign was not clear on how, exactly, she might fund her plan to eliminate the backlog.

The rape kit plan represents another effort by Harris to harness her history as a prosecutor. Since joining the race in January, she has been criticized for actions she took as San Francisco district attorney and as attorney general.

She has recently made that history a larger part of her message, casting herself as the candidate best equipped to “prosecute the case against four more years of Donald Trump,” and saying her background demonstrates a commitment to ending systemic bias in the criminal justice system.