Mariska Hargitay is best known for playing a detective on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show that focuses mainly on sexual crimes. But she doesn’t just go after rapists on TV. Hargitay’s efforts to reform the way that law enforcement officials deal with sexual assault are helping convict people who are guilty of rape in real life.
Hargitay’s nonprofit organization, the Joyful Heart Foundation, advocates for ending the backlog of untested rape kits across the country. In storage lockers across the United States, an estimated 400,000 kits that contain DNA evidence from sexual assaults are collecting dust. Without that evidence, sexual assault cases often stall. By now, some of these kits are 25 years old, and those rape victims haven’t seen justice served.
So now, the actress is partnering with leaders in Detroit — a city that’s working hard to end its own backlog — to push for a new bill to implement a better process for rape kit pickup, testing, and tracking across Michigan.
“To me, this is the clearest and most shocking demonstration of how we regard these crimes,” Hargitay said at a press conference in Detroit this week to announce the new legislative initiative. “One would assume that if someone endures a four- to six-hour invasive examination, that that evidence would be handled with care.”
Reporting rates for sexual crimes are already low, but even among the rapes that are reported to the police, only about one out of four leads to an arrest — and of those arrests, only about one out of four leads to a conviction. Activists like Hargitay point out that’s partly because cities don’t have enough resources to test all of the rape kits they receive. For instance, back in 2009, Detroit law enforcement discovered 11,000 untested rape kits left forgotten in a police warehouse.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who was a victim of sexual assault herself when she was in college, has focused her attention on processing all of those kits. So far, police have gotten through about 1,600 of them. At this week’s press conference, Worthy announced that effort has already identified 100 serial rapists — meaning that DNA was found in at least two different kits, or matched the suspects in other open cases.
On the same day that Worthy and Hargitay joined forces at their press event, a judge sentenced one of those serial rapists to prison for at least 45 years. In response, one of his victims submitted a statement saying her nightmare is finally over. “As of today, the Lord has blessed me with some closure, knowing that the person that created this bad dream is going to pay for his actions,” she wrote.
But there’s still more work to do to get through the rest of the city’s backlog. “I don’t care how long it takes, we’re going to finish,” Worthy said on Monday.
Hartigay’s organization has more work to do in other areas of the country, too. There are rape kit backlogs in cities across the United States. President Obama is proposing $35 million in his 2015 fiscal year budget to help address the issue, and Hartigay is currently working on a documentary to continue to raise awareness.
The character that Hargitay plays on TV actually motivated her to get involved in this work. After she started portraying Detective Olivia Benson, who’s a strong ally to rape survivors on Law & Order, she started getting thousands of letters from real survivors who wanted to tell her their stories. Many of them had never talked to anyone about their sexual assault before, and most of them had been let down by the justice system. Hartigay says that’s what led her to found Joyful Heart in 2004.