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Talking with the U.S. representatives behind a bill to address the rape kit backlog

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

DNA evidence can be the reason a victim of sexual violence gets justice, if that evidence is actually processed. More than a hundred thousand kits of sexual assault evidence, known as rape kits, sit untested across the country. Now two members of Congress from opposing parties have teamed up to address the problem. Republican Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina has spoken out about being a survivor of rape. She and her colleague Democratic Representative Barbara Lee of California introduced this legislation last week. Congresswoman Lee, Congresswoman Mace, it is good to have you both with us. Thanks for being here.

NANCY MACE: Thank you.

BARBARA LEE: Thank you. Nice being with you.

SHAPIRO: Why is there such a huge backlog of rape kits across the country?

MACE: Well, first of all, we know that state and local law enforcement agencies sometimes lack the resources or lack the organization to be able to do that. But first of all, I want to just give a shout-out to Barbara Lee for reaching across the aisle, working with me on this crucial, critical, most important legislation for women, because every single rape kit represents a survivor seeking justice. It represents a survivor seeking closure. And our duty is to ensure the voices of these women are heard loud and clear.

SHAPIRO: Congresswoman Lee?

LEE: Yeah, and I have to just salute Representative Mace because, you know, working with her really not only addresses the issue, but I think it's important that the country understand that there are efforts that are being worked on in a bipartisan way. And so it's a moment that we need to understand as it relates to the fact that 1 in 5 women are victims of rape or attempted rape. And the numbers are even higher for women of color. And it's a matter of priorities. You know, oftentimes we see that women are not priority in terms of survivors of rape. And so this hopefully sends a message that we want justice for survivors, and this should be prioritized.

SHAPIRO: We so often hear that law enforcement is not national. It is state and local. And so can you each tell me what the specific circumstances are leading to the backlog in your state, California and South Carolina?

MACE: Well, in South Carolina, we know sometimes it's a matter of resources for our state and local law enforcement. And we are getting a lot of support on this legislation from our state and local law enforcement agencies. And they are also in agreement that we need greater accountability, greater transparency in addressing the backlog crisis. And they need support, and they need help from Congress as well.

SHAPIRO: And in California, what's the situation?

LEE: Well, you know, California is further ahead than most states, but we still have about 14,000 untested DNA rape kits. And I am not sure why because we have the funding to do that. But also, unfortunately, law enforcement may turn their heads and just not believe women. And that's an aspect of this that we have to address.

SHAPIRO: In some cases, processing this backlog is a matter of priorities. In others, it is a matter of resources. Each rape kit can cost a thousand to $1,500 to test. Does Congress need to provide just more money, which is not in the bill that you've introduced?

LEE: Let me just say the bill doesn't provide any new funds to state, but it conditions the use of what we send already - the Byrne JAG funds - on following a simple reporting requirement. So the Federal government has been finding state backlog kits for much too long without any oversight. I mean, that's a very strong message.

SHAPIRO: That if they don't report, the money won't flow.

LEE: Yeah. I mean, that's implied. But also it means that they have to also move forward because otherwise they're going to be penalized.

MACE: And right now, we want to make sure from a first standpoint, being able to pass a bill through Congress right now as we're having fights over spending, that it can pass both chambers, that it can be bipartisan. That would be a second step as we go through future funding in the Congress. From my perspective, we want to empower our law enforcement agencies and encourage them. So it's mandating that they report their backlogs and let us know how far behind are they, what the plan is. Because if they don't do it, they're definitely going to lose funding.

SHAPIRO: The two of you, a Republican and a Democrat, seem to be marching in lockstep at a moment when most of the members of your parties are marching in opposite directions, playing a game of tug-of-war with the country, with the economy. What lessons do you think this offers for the other lawmakers who you serve with?

MACE: Well, it's about working together, and we do have agreement. It may not be every day or all that often, but we do have agreement. It is in our duty to work together for the American people. Because most people in this country, they don't trust Congress 'cause we've not given them a reason to. But when we work together for the betterment of our communities, our society, then that gives them hope. And that's what we should be doing, especially when we're in very divisive times.

LEE: Yeah, and I'm glad that you're covering this. Because I can tell you right now, many of us - Congresswoman Mace, myself and others - work in a bipartisan way on a variety of legislative agendas. But it's important that the press cover it.

SHAPIRO: That is Representative Barbara Lee of California, a Democrat, and Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina, a Republican. Thank you both.

MACE: Thank you, Ari.

LEE: Thanks a million. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.