A measure to help Florida get rid of its backlog of thousands of untested rape kits passed its first Senate panel Monday.
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-Fort Myers), the bill’s sponsor, calls the amount of untested rape kits nationwide and statewide, “an epidemic.”
“Florida took the first steps towards fixing this problem in our state last fiscal year, where we funded an audit of law enforcement agencies statewide run by FDLE to wrap our arms around the size of this issue for our state,” she said.
That final survey done by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement states there are about 13,000 untested rape kits across the state—9,400 of which should be tested.
And, Benacquisto says she hopes her bill will not only help speed up the testing process, but allow crime labs to set up guidelines as well.
“This bill provides that any DNA evidence collected in a sexual assault investigation must be submitted to a member of the statewide criminal analysis laboratory system for forensic testing within 30 days, after the forensic evidence is received, and the kit must be tested then within 120 days of submission of that test,” she added. “Lastly, by January 1, 2017, the Department in each laboratory within the laboratory system in coordination with the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence must adopt and disseminate guidelines and procedures for collection, submission, and testing of DNA evidence.”
This issue is especially important to Attorney General Pam Bondi.
“Think how many other states and how many victims throughout the country that we will be able to help, even if it’s an unsolved case here that we’ll never be able to solve,” said Bondi, during a press conference, months ago. “Think what we can do once this goes in CODIS [Combined DNA Index System], throughout state and federal databases. So, that’s our goal here: is to make this country safer for our victims.”
It’s also important to Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco, who says these are all regional issues, and the bill will help get justice for rape victims.
“It just happened in 2006, we had a mother at home who was brutally raped and beaten,” he said, during that same press conference. For numerous years, the Pasco County Sheriff’s office has been working this. We put that information into CODIS. “In 2014, Pinellas County Sheriff’s office arrested somebody with the same MO, who raped and beat a woman in Pinellas County. We got a CODIS hit off of that, and we were able to make an arrest in Pasco County.”
After making some changes, Benacquisto’s bill is now similar to a House measure that’s already passed its first committee.
According to the House bill’s staff analysis, the fiscal impact of the measure has yet to be determined.
And, with the two bills’ similarities, Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) questioned Benacquisto on the funding aspect.
“Thank you for doing this,” he said. “It’s much appreciated. Do you anticipate as this moves forward that there will be a funding component to this as well?”
“There is a two tiered track—one of course is the funding of the untested rape kits and the FDLE are allotting for funding in their budget for about 3,500 kits a month, and that is due to an increase of submissions of late,” Benacquisto responded.
If the state goes for the cheaper solution and uses outsourcing, the FDLE estimates it could cost $8.1 million. But, that may change, since a recent Budget panel wants the FDLE to come up with better options.
But, overall, Bencquisto says she just wants to send a clear message with her bill to victims “that the evidence that will bring their victimizers to justice matters and we’ll take care of in a timely fashion and they know that we’re on their side.”
And, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee passed her bill unanimously Monday.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.