SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This week, President Trump signed the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting Act. It's a bill designed to give money to help process tens of thousands of rape kits around the country that have never been tested. Eight years ago, Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy decided to make processing the 11,341 untested rape kits in the Detroit area a priority. Today she is about 90 percent done. She joins us from her office in Detroit.
Ms. Worthy, thanks so much for being with us.
KYM WORTHY: My pleasure.
SIMON: What have you discovered?
WORTHY: We have discovered that we have - just from our project in one city in one county in one state - over 800 identified serial rapists.
SIMON: I'm going to imagine that they haven't just been committing crimes in Wayne County.
WORTHY: No, no, no. We have also identified 39 other states that have been impacted crimewise by our kits that were found in Detroit. They're not all rape cases. We also have some homicides, some other types of cases that testing rape kits will also help to solve.
SIMON: What have you discovered might help processing this huge number of rape kits? You need more money, personnel - what do you need?
WORTHY: Well, when we first started, there really was no road map. So we kind of had to put it together ourselves. And the first thing that is of notice, Detroit was a near-bankrupt city. And so we had no money. At that time, it cost anywhere from $1,200 to $1,500 per kit back in '09 to test them. So we're looking at a multimillion-dollar problem just to get them tested. And it doesn't do any good to test them all if you're not going to follow up and investigate and prosecute them like you should have done - or like it should've been done - when this first happened. So those are the challenges we are facing. But my first challenge is basically begging and pleading with foundations, with Detroit businessmen and -women, with the general public - to basically fund the project.
SIMON: Did you run into resistance from people who said, look, this sounds like a good thing to do, but Detroit's a city filled with good things to do?
WORTHY: Well, we ran into - more of a problem was, this sounds like a good thing, but isn't that the function of government to pay for that? And basically, we had to say, well, we can't wait on Detroit to have any more money. We can't wait and have these victims wait even more because, remember, our kits back then went back 25 years. So now some of these kits are over 35 years old. So we didn't want to be a part of extending the trauma of these victims who were waiting for it.
So we basically had to hit the - I - personally, I had to hit the road. I talked to foundations, Detroit businessmen and -women. I knew the Detroit people are very philanthropic, and so that's what got us all started. And then kind of the cherry on the top of the cake was when I met Mariska Hargitay and started working with her foundation, the Joyful Heart Foundation.
SIMON: She's one of the stars of "Special Victims Unit." Right?
WORTHY: Yes, "Law & Order: SVU."
SIMON: Have you been able to begin to give justice to women who might have thought that they would never be able to see it?
WORTHY: We have. As of a couple of months ago, we are up to 125 solid convictions, and that represents the defendants. And so there's...
WORTHY: ...Really more cases than that because many of those defendants that we've prosecuted have raped more than one woman.
SIMON: I understand that there were a variety of reasons as to why these rape kits were untested...
SIMON: ...Including, as you note, the fiscal problems that Detroit has been enduring for more than a generation. But was there also indifference?
WORTHY: Yes, that's all a part of rape culture. Back then, when some of these kits took place, we had law enforcement in Detroit that really didn't take the case seriously. And that's really a national problem - it still is when it comes to sexual assault. I call sexual assault kind of the neglected child of the family - where if we were talking about homicide or if we're talking about carjacking, we wouldn't have this problem. No one would shelve, let's say, guns and knives that were used as murder weapons.
So - but they did these kits, which also are - each one of them is a box that contain a lot of evidence that could be tested. And so yes, we have a problem in this country with rape culture. You see that going on right now. It's never been more evident than it is now - rape culture, sexual harassment culture, all of that.
And so training was also needed. Back then, when we first started, we had found police reports in some files that we pulled where police officers were writing very disparaging things about our victims - not believing them, dismissing their cases, not bothering to work on them. And so that was a part of it as well - not just the neglect, not just no money but just active rape culture in play, where they just did not care.
SIMON: Based on your expertise, this is happening in a number of cities and counties. Isn't it?
WORTHY: Yeah. There are estimated to be over 400,000 untested abandoned rape kits in this country. And I don't know if you're familiar with Michigan Stadium right here in our state. It seats over 100,000 people. When I tell people that the amount of untested kits in this country that they're estimated to be - you can fill up the biggest college or national football stadium in the country four times. And that's if each kit represents a victim - which it does - and you think of game day at Michigan Stadium four times over, that's how many we have in this country. And that's probably a conservative estimate. It is absolutely horrible. And hopefully, it is changing, albeit very slowly.
SIMON: Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy, thank you. We've learned a lot.
WORTHY: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.