In a rare showing of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats in the Florida House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill aimed at preventing future sexual assault kit backlogs.
Sexual assault kits, commonly referred to as “rape kits,” are sexual assault forensic exams performed on the victim of a sexual assault. Victims may choose to have the exam to collect and preserve DNA evidence, and receive important medical care.
A report published by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) revealed 13,435 unsubmitted sexual assault kits throughout the state.
There are a variety of reasons why a rape kit would not be submitted for testing. Sometimes the victim decides not to pursue charges while other times the prosecutor’s office is able to secure a guilty plea before the kit is submitted for testing. However, the FBI’s National Combined DNA Indexing System, which provides laboratories the ability to compare results from rape kits against a national database, has made the testing of all kits valuable.
The report estimated that it would cost anywhere from $9 to $32 million to resolve the backlog.
State officials are currently reviewing the options proposed in the FDLE’s report for the best way to deal with the backlog.
Whatever the final cost ends up being, Governor Rick Scott vowed to find the funds necessary to ensure all the kits were tested.
While the best way to end the backlog is being evaluated, the Florida Legislature was reluctant to sit idle on an issue where rapists were potentially escaping justice. The state Senate quickly put together a bill to ensure another backlog doesn’t occur, and it passed unanimously on February 24.
The objective of the bill is to create strict time limits for local law enforcement agencies to submit rape kits to the FDLE.
Under the terms of the legislation, local agencies would be required to submit sexual assault kits within 30 days from the beginning of their investigation’s or after a request from a victim or the victim’s representative that they would like the evidence tested. The FDLE’s statewide crime lab would then have 120 days from the date of submission to complete a test.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi applauded the legislation.
“I have seen firsthand the heartache caused by sexual predators,” Bondi said. “This legislation is a significant step toward bringing more predators to justice and helping victims heal.”
Although the cost to end the backlog and ensure it doesn’t happen again is high, previous rape kit backlogs that were resolved in other cities and states led to prosecutions and DNA evidence that revealed serial rapists.
In 2000, New York City began testing its 17,000 unsubmitted rap kits. The process eventually led to over 2,000 DNA matches and 200 cold case prosecutions across the city. Those offenders are now serving more than 900 years in prison. Houston and the State of Michigan also had rape kit backlogs that numbered in the thousands. However, they too resolved their backlogs and in the process convicted numerous rapists who had been escaping justice.
The bill is now in the hands of Governor Rick Scott who is expected to sign it soon.