President Obama's FY15 budget includes $35 million to aid local efforts to address rape kit backlogs, with Mayor A C Wharton Jr. labeling it the most significant federal support yet.
"I applaud the Obama administration for recognizing the urgency of addressing the backlog of untested sexual assault kits across the country, and their willingness to provide $35 million in funds to help local communities with the many aspects of work necessary to navigate this issue," said Wharton.
Memphis has over 12,000 untested rape kits – a "systematic failure" that represents "justice denied" Wharton said last month, announcing plans for a cross-functional team with representatives from law enforcement and legal and victim advocate groups to address the rape kit-testing debacle.
The sexual assault kit cross functional team held its first meeting last week, with Wharton saying it is laser focused on eliminating the backlog, following leads generated from testing, keeping survivors and the public informed and developing policies and procedures to prevent another backlog.
"While we have a comprehensive plan in place, and a team focused on this effort, we also need funding," he said.
President Obama's budget proposal dedicates funding for the first time to end the nationwide rape kit backlog at local law enforcement agencies. A new Department of Justice grant would provide local communities resources to:
• Test backlogged kits in their police storage facilities;
• Create multi-disciplinary teams to investigate and prosecute cases connected to the backlog;
• Address the need for victim notification and re-engagement with the criminal justice system.
"We are doing our part by investing local resources for testing, investigation, prosecution and victim support," Wharton said.
"It is my great hope that a portion of the President's proposed $35 million program will be available to complement our investment and allow us to successfully address our 12,000-kit backlog and complete this vital work."
The Joyful Heart Foundation is partnering with the City of Memphis to address the backlog.
"President Obama's budget allocation will provide cities across the country with the vital resources they need to put an end to the rape kit backlog and provide greater access to justice and healing for survivors," said Sarah Tofte, the Foundation's vice president of Policy and Advocacy
"In our work with mayors, police and prosecutors around the nation, we find public officials committed to this work yet struggling to find the resources to enact the comprehensive reform they want and need. This funding provides the way forward they have been searching for."
Wharton plans to work with local and state representatives to coordinate efforts to support the administration in getting the funds approved, and to develop a comprehensive grant proposal to ensure that Memphis gets its fair share of the funds.
Congressman Steve Cohen said he is glad that President Obama recognized the urgency of the problem and has moved to provide significant funding.
"Cutting these backlogs down is the right thing to do for the victims of these terrible crimes and is an important step in keeping our communities safe from predators," said Cohen.
"Memphis needs more assistance from the federal government in addressing our own backlog and, if Congress passes the President's FY2015 budget, I will work with Mayor Wharton and do everything I can to help our city receives the funding it deserves."