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Joe Biden backs $41 million fund to reduce rape kit testing backlog

Vice President Joe Biden threw his support behind a $41 million budget proposal that continues a sexual assault initiative aimed at reducing rape kit testing backlogs.

"Testing rape kits should be a priority for the U.S.," Biden said Monday at a Maryland State Police laboratory. "If we're able to test these rape kits, more crimes would be solved, more rapes would be avoided."

President Obama's 2016 budget, which includes $20 million for Department of Justice research in addition to the millions dedicated to the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, aims to both diminish the testing backlog and also prevent the kits from piling up.

The vice president cited studies suggesting that many rape cases that go unprosecuted could be closed if more rape kits were tested.

"We could probably...solve 50 percent of the rapes that are now unsolved," Biden said.

About half of the funding would be used to reduce the kit logjam while the other half would go towards the prosecution of sexual assault perpetrators.

Maryland has been struggling with a backlog of kits for years. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, who recently announced her retirement from the Senate, has a long legislative career dedicated to improving conditions for assault survivors. In 2009, she signed on to the Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault Act, legislation that sought to address the problem of rape kit backlogs and training health professionals in rape kit examinations. And in 2014, then the chairwoman of the Senate's Appropriations Committee, Mikulski fought for federal funding to address violence against women.

According to some estimates, as many as 400,000 rape kits remain untested across the nation. The published backlog estimate, which has drawn national attention in recent years, could be lower than the real number of kits, since law enforcement agencies are not required to report the numbers to the Department of Justice. Sexual assault investigations are often delayed when there is a lack of forensic evidence.

While Biden acknowledged that budget battles are never easy to fight in the legislature, the former Delaware senator prioritized the funding for the assault legislation.

"Every year we need to make tough budget choices," Biden said. "There are few other things we can do... to have the potential for a major payoff to prevent them in addition to solving them.

Though it may not increase reporting rates for sexual assaults -- one of the most under-reported of crimes, with reporting rates clocking in at under 35 percent, according to Justice Department statistics-- the vice president said that it could bring a different sort of relief for victims.

"It brings closure, justice," he said.