Federal funding needed for rape kit reform

Over the past several years, news has poured in about thousands of untested rape kits found in police evidence facilities in cities across the country—20,000 in Texas, 12,669 in Los Angeles, 4,000 in Illinois, 5,523 in Ohio, 11,304 in Detroit and 12,164 in Memphis.

The discovery of each trove of untested kits is shocking to the public, concerning to survivors of sexual violence, disappointing to victim advocates, and humbling for law enforcement. The announcement that President Obama’s FY15 budget includes – for the first time – $35 million in dedicated funding, to support community response teams in their work to address untested rape kits in police storage facilities, is a relief to public officials committed to comprehensive reform.

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We understand the opportunities for justice and healing contained in those untested kits. DNA from the kit can identify an unknown rapist, confirm the identity of a known assailant, corroborate the victim's account, and exonerate innocent suspects. In a jurisdiction like New York City, with a long-standing policy to test every rape kit booked into police evidence, the arrest rate for rape skyrocketed from 40 percent to 70 percent once mandatory rape kit testing was implemented. When Detroit tested its first 1600 kits, it found 100 serial rapists, and linked rape kits to crimes in 22 states and the District of Columbia.

With such powerful reasons to test rape kits, it's no wonder that this country is moving towards significant rape kit reform. Cities and states are going into their storage facilities and counting their rape kits to assess whether they have a problem. Jurisdictions with larger numbers of untested rape kits are finding the resources to test their rape kits, and changing their policies to ensure every rape kit booked into police custody is sent to a crime lab for testing.

But we know that testing the rape kits is just the first step to comprehensive reform. Once the problem is acknowledged and the first kits are sent out for testing, cities are left to grapple with the enormous task of not just finding a way to test all of their rape kits, but also figuring out how to investigate and prosecute the cases connected to the untested kits, re-engage survivors in the process, and address any systemic failures that led so many rape kits to get left behind in police storage in the first place.

This work takes political will, but it also takes significant resources, and up until now, finding the money has been a struggle. In the City of Memphis, which has made a commitment to comprehensive rape kit reform, we have turned to our City Council and state government to pay for the cost of testing our rape kits, but our search continues for the funding necessary to pursue every lead from rape kit testing, conduct victim notification, and provide comprehensive services to survivors whose untested kits were neglected for so long.

The $35 million contained in the president’s budget is what we need to get our job done - to uphold our commitment to pursue every lead from testing our rape kits, reform our criminal justice response to rape, engage survivors in the process, and bring offenders to justice.

Wharton has been the mayor of Memphis, Tennessee since 2009. Tofte is the vice president of Policy & Advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation.