By Susan Rose
As California’s Attorney General and U.S. Senator, Kamala Harris has fought for a decade to end the backlog of unprocessed rape kits -- a national scandal that has denied justice to hundreds of thousands of women who have been raped or sexually assaulted.
As Harris campaigns as the Democratic Party nominee for Vice President, her work on the issue represents a political case study that provides substantial evidence of how electing women to office makes a difference for women's lives.
Her commitment to resolving the rape kit backlog, ensuring an administrative and legislative system that supports victims of sexual violence, is a meaningful example of her consistent and sustained effort to establish a criminal justice system that advocates for women.
As she has risen through the pipeline of elected offices, Harris has developed as a leader who understands the potential of her elected positions to effect change on behalf of women and children.
I have witnessed Harris’ critical work on the rape kit backlog through my own involvement with the issue with Human Rights Watch,an organization with which I became involved after I retired from elected office. Known internationally for its commitment to “ending abuses in all corners of the world,” HRW through its staff does substantive research, publishes policy reports and advocates for change.
The backlog: NY and LA.The rape kit backlog first came to national attention in 1999 in New York City, where thousands of unopened and untested kits collected from victims, were discovered, unprocessed, in storage units in the city.
New York’s District Attorney committed to ending the backlog; within four years, all the kits had been sent to laboratories to be analyzed and the backlog ended. A special cold-case unit was established to investigate when evidence was found, and the unit pursued two hundred cases.
Although political will and leadership prevailed in New York, current law and police practices varied greatly from state to state.
In 2008, Sarah Tofte, a Human Rights Watch researcher, came to LA to work on the rape kit backlog there. Tofte interviewed 48 police departments throughout the city and county of Los Angeles and discovered a backlog of 12,000 untested kits.
In the wake of her investigation, women activists lobbied elected officials, aided by media coverage of the issue.
Local governments and police departments soon responded, funding more staff and contracting with private labs to eliminate the backlog.
In March 2009, Human Rights Watch published a report titled “Testing Justice, the Rape Kit Backlog in LA City and County,” which documented what had happened; In 2011, then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced that more than 6,000 rape kits had been tested in the city.
However, there remained an ongoing challenge: to ensure that jurisdictions tested all kits and moved them quickly to labs which would perform a fast turnaround to obtain evidence. This has not occurred in many states and there has been a shortage of rape kits in some communities.
Women make a difference for women. In 2011, Kamala Harris was elected Attorney General of California. Since that time, and continuing to present day, she has been dedicated to resolving the rape kit backlog.
In her first year in office, the California Department of Justice made testing a priority for its Bureau of Forensic Services. Under Harris, the department issued a new protocol, requiring that 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.” Samples are uploaded into a DNA Index (CODIS) and become part of a national data base that is crucial in solving criminal cases. This approach accelerated testing of the rape kits.
In 2012, Attorney General Harris announced that the Department of Justice had cleared a backlog of evidence. Further, state labs were then equipped to analyze kits within 30 days, down from an average of 90 to 120 days.
The use of robots to analyze the multiple samples, collected by criminal justice departments and sexual response teams, enabled the work to be expedited.
In 2015, Harris announced the California RADS program would receive $1.6 million from an initiative program, sponsored by the New York district attorney’s office, to test sexual assault evidence.
The grant helped the attorney general’s efforts to support local law enforcement agencies and their local labs with continued backlogs.
Harris takes it national. In 2019, now serving as a U.S. Senator, Kamala Harris released a plan to end the national rape kit backlog.
Around the same time an investigative report in The Atlantic stated that 200,000 rape kits still remain unopened nationally.
“The federal government can and should prioritize justice for survivors of sex abuse, assault and rape,” Harris said, citing tens of thousands of unresolved cases of women victimized by rape and sexual assault.
Harris proposed a budget of $1 billion to eliminate the backlog within four years and to ensure the problem does not re-occur.
Her comprehensive proposal would require an annual report on the number of untested kits; testing of all new kits within a short time frame; tracking rape kits and informing victims about the status of their investigation; and increasing the availability of rape kits in remote areas.
During her own campaign for president in 2019, she became the first national candidate to “lay out a plan" to eliminate the backlog, according to reporting by Vox, pronouncing her commitment to “putting pressure on a system that has long failed to treat sexual assault as a top priority.”
Providing states with money to process the kits, the proposal would link funding to improved turnaround time for delivering kits to labs and completing analysis of the evidence.
Harris’s plan would cost around $100 million annually; she frequently notes this would be less than it costs President Trump to "go on his golfing trips.”
Through her long-term commitment, Harris has demonstrated a principled determination to elevate the issue for law enforcement. If she becomes Vice-President, Harris said, she would ensure the national backlog is ended once and for all.
Bottom line.As a policy matter, Kamala Harris’s commitment to this fight has, and will, make a difference for all women. As a political matter, it proves anew the crucial importance of gender equality in elective office.
Susan Rose served for eight years on Santa Barbara County's Board of Supervisors and is former executive director of the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women. A co-founder of the Women and Leadership Program at Antioch University Santa Barbara, she is on the board of Emerge California, a Democratic training program for women candidates.
Images: Harris (Washington Post); Sarah Tofte (understory.info); Harris during a Democratic primary debate 2019 (USA Today); Biden and Harris campaign together in August (CNN); Susan Rose.