Actress Mariska Hargitay, who portrays a police detective on television, on Monday pledged her support for a real-life crime-fighting effort: quicker testing for a backlog of thousands of rape kits in the Detroit area and across Michigan.
Hargitay, a star of NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," joined Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy in announcing legislation at the state level aimed at stopping serial rapists by better identifying and arresting suspects in sexual assault cases through the testing.
For the past few years, Worthy's office has been slowly wading through sexual assault kits recovered in 2009 from a Detroit police storage facility. They contain DNA and other evidence from rape cases, but a majority of the 11,000 kits never were tested in a lab.
Hundreds of thousands of kits are believed to sit untested in police departments across the country.
Testing can bring justice to rape victims, said Hargitay, founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation, which works with victims of sexual abuse, child abuse and domestic violence.
The organization has taken on the rape kit backlog issue because the lack of prompt testing "is the clearest and most shocking demonstration of how we regard these crimes in our country," she said.
"Every day in the United States women and men take the courageous step of reporting their rape to the police," Hargitay said. "And because of what those individuals have suffered, their bodies are crime scenes. They're living, breathing, feeling crime scenes from which doctors and nurses collect evidence in a sexual assault collection kit."
The legislation — which Worthy described during a press briefing as a collaboration between police, prosecutors, health care organizations and victims' groups — would provide processes and timelines for rape kit pickup and testing. It also would allow for greater input from victims and seeks to put in place a mechanism to track each kit.
Of 1,600 Detroit kits tested, 59 percent have yielded matches in a federal DNA databank. Worthy said 87 serial rapists have been identified and 10 convictions made.
Some of these kits are "over 25 years old, and we want to make sure we deal with the victims mercifully and honestly," Worthy said. "Our ultimate goal ... when it comes to the legislative side is to identify and apprehend those offenders as soon as possible to stop serial rapists."
The legislation could be introduced later this month.
One of the problems has been a shortage of manpower and funding to do testing.
About $4 million has been earmarked by the state to pay for testing of more than 7,000 of the Detroit kits. Nationally, President Barack Obama is proposing $35 million in the 2015 fiscal year budget to address the testing backlog.
"This federal funding is a direct result of Kym's tireless and relentless work here in Detroit," Hargitay said. "I'm here in Detroit because I think we have an awesome opportunity with someone who knows how to do it. If you do it here in Detroit, the rest of the country can figure it out."