2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris unveiled a $1 billion proposal in early July that could help to clear the backlog of an estimated 225,000-250,000 untested rape kits.
Linking her new proposal to her history as a prosecutor, Harris tweeted to her followers, “We need leaders committed to fighting for justice for survivors of abuse, not protecting predators.” As California’s Attorney General, Harris’ push for more funding to go towards rape kit analysis cleared a 1,300-kit backlog and lowered the average testing time from 90-120 days to just 30, earning her an Award for Professional Innovation in Victim Services from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Harris’ proposal also highlights the importance of feminist philanthropy and the crucial role of funding in seeking justice for victims of sex crimes. Nonprofit organization End the Backlog says that it costs $1,000-$1,500 to accurately test one rape kit. The funds for Harris’ initiative would be used not only to test the kits and decrease analysis time, but also to implement new ways of keeping track of untested kits and to roll out new communication methods for informing survivors about the status of their kits. Funding would be particularly significant in isolated and rural areas, where the appropriate resources for testing kits in an accurately and timely manner are often scarce.
Communication with survivors of sexual abuse is particularly significant because of how traumatizing the process of a rape kit can be for some. Many rape and sexual assault survivors say that enduring the physical and psychological stress of a rape kit after being sexually abused, only to ultimately have their kits remain untested while their attackers roam free, is highly violating and retraumatizing.
In particular, addressing the rape kit backlog exposes the problems posed by serial sexual predators. In states and cities that have taken steps to fund the testing of archived rape kits, such as Detroit and Cleveland, the prevalence of sex crimes perpetrated by serial rapists has been a stark and unnerving discovery. Funding from the Michigan Women’s Foundation (now known as Michigan Women’s Forward) and other feminist donors towards clearing Detroit’s 11,000-kit backlog recently helped to identify over 800 serial rapists in a single Michigan county. The resulting arrests helped not only individual survivors in finding healing and safety, but large pools of potential victims of repeat offenders as well.
Some law enforcement officials and activists believe that clearing the backlog could lead us to a greater collective understanding of what rape is and who perpetrates it. In public dialogue, sexual assault is often still treated as a “he said, she said” situation or a problem between two individuals. At best, it’s often discussed as a heinous crime perpetrated against one individual by another. But the reality is probably, some prosecutors say, more likely to be an issue of serial rapists–akin to serial muggers or murderers.
In Cleveland, for example, nearly 20% of recently tested rape kits pointed to a serial offender, revealing a whopping 480 serial rapists’ DNA among the kits in Cleveland alone. Feminist activists believe that clearing the backlog could potentially lead to a sea change in shifting the dialogue around sexual assault and eradicating common myths that have clouded conversations about rape for years, in addition to taking serial predators off the streets.
It’s clear that funding, moreover, is often the difference between leaving sexual assault kits untested for years and clearing the backlog efficiently. $38 million in grants from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, for example, recently led to 186 arrests around the country, including 64 convictions of sex offenders. Over 55,000 rape kits were tested in 20 states as a result of the office’s Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Elimination Program over the past several years alone.
As Harris’ campaign notes, sexual assault is disproportionately perpetrated against marginalized women, such as women of color, as well as mentally ill, disabled, poor, undocumented, queer, and/or trans women. Putting funding towards clearing the rape kit backlog is a matter, many activists claim, of seeking justice for some of the most vulnerable populations.
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