1. $35 million to address the nationwide rape kit backlog added to 2015 budget proposal.President Obama unveiled his budget proposal for 2015, and it includes an historic $35 million in funding for testing the backlog of rape kits that are sitting untouched in cities across the country. Vice President Biden spoke to this on Wednesday, saying,
“By testing these rape kits we can identify serial rapists, put them behind bars and bring the ultimate nightmare of the woman raped to an end."Biden highlighted the analysis of 1,600 of the backlogged rape kits discovered in a Detroit Police storage facility in 2009. The evidence obtained from those rape kits has led to the identification of 87 suspected serial rapists, and more than 14 convictions involving 10 defendants.
Even as we celebrate these important results in Detroit, we need to remember that there is still work to be done. It is important to keep the discussion about funding the testing for the rape kit backlog in the forefront of decisions about law enforcement budgets. There were more than 11,000 untested rape kits found in the Detroit warehouse, and an estimated hundreds of thousands of kits sit, awaiting testing, across the country.
On Tuesday, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy presented the progress her office has made to Detroit's City Council. She shared her frustration that Wayne County has not put any money toward testing the backlog of rape kits, and has placed the testing and cataloging of evidence from rape kits as a low priority on their latest deficit elimination plan.
Also included in the Obama administration's budget proposal for 2015 is a restoration to some of the funding that was cut for programs which serve victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Even with these proposed funding increases, Kim Gandy, President and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), noted, "Unfortunately the funding is not keeping up with inflation, which means that victims must be turned away when they are at their most vulnerable. The consequences for victims who can't access services can be dire – homelessness, further abuse, even death."
The 2015 budget proposal is certainly a step in the right direction for helping victims and survivors of rape and domestic violence, but we must remember that right now these numbers are only a plan. This funding is subject to congressional approval of the budget, and may or may not actually become reality.
2. Kirsten Gillibrand's Military Justice Improvement Act Bill was blocked by the Senate.
On Thursday, March 6, 2014, the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) fell five votes short of the 60 needed to overcome filibuster.
This bi-partisan bill, championed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, would have removed military commanders from decisions over the prosecution of sexual assault cases in the armed forces.
This vote came on the same day Lt. Col. Joseph Morse, the Army's top sex-crimes prosecutor who supervises 23 other special-victims prosecutors, was reported to be under investigation for groping a female lawyer at a sexual-assault conference in 2011. The vote also followed February, the month when Stars and Stripes reported that the Army suspended 588 troops and employees in “positions of trust” (including sexual assault response personnel and recruiters) for suspected offenses including sexual crimes, child abuse, and drunk driving, and the Pentagon came under pressure after an AP investigation found a pattern of light penalties and inconsistent judgments in sexual assault cases at US bases in Japan.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said a vote in favor of the Gillibrand proposal could be bad for GOP presidential aspirants in the Senate.
“People wanting to run for president on our side, I will remind you of this vote. You want to be commander in chief? You told me a a lot today about who you are as commander in chief. You were willing to fire every commander in the military for reasons I don’t quite understand. So we will have a good conversation as to whether or not you understand how the military actually works.” - Lindsey Graham
I would argue that the military does not work - at least in reference to their "zero tolerance" policy on sexual assault. As Gilibrand said,
"If we measured any other mission that our military has set zero tolerance for, compared to how they've done on sexual assault, there would be an outcry louder than we can imagine. But in this case, they have failed over and over and over again."
I don't know if those GOP senators who voted in favor of the MJIA are going to run for presidential office or not. It seems a likely possibility in the cases of Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. But no matter who runs in the presidential primaries for 2016, I hope that Lindsey Graham's words are partly true.
I hope people will remember this vote. I hope that we as a nation will remind each other who stood up for a bill that would have supported survivors of sexual assault in the United States Military with important changes to the way their cases are handled, and who stood against it.
It is important that we remember how our senators voted on the MJIA when it comes time to vote for them again. In Florida, we have one republican and one democratic senator. Both Marco Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D) voted against the MJIA. I will remember them when I am filling out my next ballot. How did your senators vote on the MJIA?
Kirsten Gillibrand's words after the vote failed to overturn filibuster are so very true and perfect,
"I always hoped we could do the right thing here - and deliver a military justice system that is free from bias and conflict of interest - a military justice system that is worthy of the brave men and women who fight for us," Gillibrand said. "But today the Senate turned its back on a majority of its members."
In one week we saw a very hopeful possibility and one very sad defeat. It is so important to continue to fight for survivors of sexual assault in this country. Please contact your elected representatives, and tell them it is important to you how evidence and sexual assault cases are handled. Your voice does matter, and if you speak out, it can make a difference in future votes.