CLICK FOR MORE: In October, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton signed an executive order to have all backlogged rape kits tested.Greg Campbell/Getty Images
In Memphis, rape victim Meaghan Ybos has been crusading for years for legislation to address the backlogs in her state. She was 16 years old when she was sexually assaulted in her suburban home in 2003. She underwent a forensic rape exam but never heard anything else about her kit.
In 2012 she was watching the local news and learned police had arrested a suspected serial rapist in the neighborhood where she lived.
"I just knew it was the same person," said Ybos, who called police, told them about her assault and persuaded them to reopen her case. Her rape kit was eventually examined, and the suspect's DNA and that in her kit matched. The suspect pleaded guilty in her case and is currently incarcerated.
But Ybos, who is also supporting a proposal to lift Tennessee's eight-year statute of limitation on rapes, said it shouldn't have taken her that long to get justice.
"They never tried to process it until I called ... and asked them," she said of her rape kit.
A spokeswoman for the Memphis Police Department recently told The Associated Press that she couldn't comment about the backlog because the department is in the middle of litigation concerning a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of women whose rape kits haven't been tested.
But when asked about the situation at an event earlier this month, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton didn't mince words.
"We had a systemic failure here," he said of the backlog.
In 2003 the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation received a federal grant for more than $3 million to test rape kits. TBI spokeswoman Illana Tate said that the agency solicited kits from all law enforcement agencies in Tennessee but that she didn't know exactly how many were submitted.
Wharton has asked the Memphis City Council for a million dollars to help with the backlog. He said a little over 2,000 of the kits have been sent to laboratories and it could take up to five years for all the kits to be tested.
Memphis, like other cities, is operating on a tight budget. Its police and fire officials haven't been able to get new training classes because of the city's strapped finances. But Wharton said he's determined to get the money needed to address the city's backlog, even if it means reaching out to philanthropic groups for donations.
"Every day that a sexual assault kit sits untested represents justice delayed," he said.
Tennesee state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican and chairman of the Council of State Governments, is the sponsor of the inventory measure in Tennessee. He says he believes there are other municipalities in the state experiencing backlogs.
"We've got to quantify the magnitude of this problem," he said. "We know that Memphis has somewhere in excess of 12,000 untested forensic evidence kits, but we need to know how many other local law enforcement authorities may have similar backlogs."
Another Tennessee proposal would require that law enforcement agencies submit rape kits to the TBI within 10 days of receipt and that they be analyzed within six months. However, that measure could be costly and is unlikely to pass.
"If the proposal is passed where TBI has to return kits in six months, we would need to double our manpower and require new buildings to accommodate new hires and equipment," Tate said.
Tennessee state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a co-sponsor of the TBI proposal, said some type of legislation needs to be passed to address the backlogs because, in addition to rape victims, there are individuals who have been falsely accused of rape and need the kits tested to be exonerated.
"They could have been incarcerated while waiting for the evidence to clear them, or maybe they pled down to a lesser charge just to get out of jail," said the Memphis Democrat.
Alexenko said the inventory proposal is more likely to pass in Tennessee and other states because it "creates a dialogue" between law enforcement agencies and city officials to begin to try to address the problem.
"Each rape kit represents a human being whose body was a crime scene," she said.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press