Kamala Harris speaks on stage at 2019 ESSENCE Festival at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on July 06, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Paras Griffin (Getty Images for ESSENCE)
We’re just short of a year away from officially naming a Democratic nominee to face off against Donald Trump in 2020, but the candidates have been wasting no time presenting their platforms; many of them wisely lobbying for support at last weekend’s Essence Festival in New Orleans.
As the only black woman in the running—and currently one of the frontrunners—Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has understandably been rallying the coveted black female vote. In the past week, she has presented plans to bolster the black middle class through a $100 billion plan to increase access to homeownership, proposed methods to protect for the formerly incarcerated from housing discrimination, presented a plan to address the black maternal mortality crisis, and another to revise credit score criteria [h/t Lifehacker], among other proposed policies. But Harris’ latest proposal may be one of the most promising of any candidates when it comes to seeking justice for victims of sexual assault.
Per a press release sent to The Root:
Senator Kamala Harris is announcing a plan to close the nationwide rape kit backlog by the end of her first term, a bold commitment to help ensure justice for survivors of sexual assault, sex abuse, and rape. The announcement comes as the case of Jeffrey Epstein, who was indicted this week for sex trafficking and faces accusations of raping teenage girls, draws further scrutiny. On Tuesday, Harris called for Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, who as U.S. Attorney negotiated a sweetheart deal for Epstein, to resign. “We need leaders committed to fighting for justice for survivors of abuse, not protecting predators,” she said.
Harris’ proposal would invest $1 billion to allow states to fully eliminate their rape-kit backlogs within four years and implement reforms to ensure a backlog does not happen again. On average, it costs $1,000 to $1,500 to test one rape kit. The annual estimated cost of the program is $100 million, which is $2 million less than what taxpayers have reportedly spent on President Trump’s golf trips. Rape kits are used by medical professionals to collect evidence during a medical exam of a sexual assault victim in order to establish elements of a crime, and in the last decade, roughly 225,000 known untested rape kits have been uncovered.
All shade to Trump’s golf trips aside, such a measure could be life-changing for victims—and for women, in particular, who comprise the highest percentage of reported sexual assaults; currently, an estimated 1 in 6 women has been sexually assaulted, and 1 in 10 men, according to RAINN.
“The federal government can and should prioritize justice for survivors of sex abuse, assault and rape,” Harris said in the release, which also pointed out that as Attorney General of California, she’d eliminated a backlog of over 1,000 untested rape kits within her first year in office, earning the U.S. Department of Justice’s Award for Professional Innovation in Victim Services.
So, how does Harris plan to do the same if elected president? With consideration for the $1,000 to $1,500 it takes to test a single rape kit, she proposes allocating additional funding to states who meet the following criteria (via press release):
1. Annually counting and reporting the number of untested rape kits.
2. Requiring the submission and testing of all newly collected rape kits within a short time frame.
3. Tracking rape kits and giving victims the right to know the status of their rape kits.
4. Increasing the availability of rape kits statewide, including in rural and remote areas. States will have the option to partner with the FBI to eliminate their backlog or to receive federal funding to process kits on their own. States will also be encouraged to enact laws that require law enforcement agencies to preserve rape kits for the duration of the statute of limitations.
Coupled with her other proposals, which include blocking unconstitutional abortion bans, addressing the gender pay gap, and closing “the boyfriend loophole” when addressing the epidemic of domestic violence, it appears Harris may be subtly centering women—and women of color, in particular—in her policies, as all of the above are issues that disproportionately affect those populations. But with a year to go before a Democratic candidate is declared, does Harris have a chance to emerge the winner among black voters? Much remains to be seen (and we have more to report on Harris, after her Essence Fest appearances), but perhaps her latest proposal will compel a much-needed conversation among all candidates on how to best defend victims of sexual violence.