TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – The powerful chairman of a Senate committee that oversees the criminal-justice budget said Wednesday that Florida’s backlog of thousands of untested rape kits is one of his top priorities.
But Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also made clear he isn’t a fan of Florida Department of Law Enforcement proposals to outsource testing of the kits to clear the backlog.
“The response and the report and everything … it has a bureaucratic ring to it,” Negron told Jennifer Pritt, the department’s assistant commissioner for criminal justice services. “If this is the best you can do, we’ll have to work through it. But it sounds like FDLE doesn’t really want to do it.”
“No,” Pritt replied. “We would absolutely love to. … If we were at full staffing and we could retain our analysts, we would love to do this in-house. We do not feel we could come to you in good faith and say, ‘Give us 25 more crime-lab analysts,’ when we’re at 24 percent vacancy rates and we can’t keep the ones that we have.”
The Negron-led Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee was discussing an FDLE report this month showing that more than 13,000 rape kits that could include evidence from sexual assaults are untested statewide. Testing the DNA evidence could help law enforcement agencies catch rapists and prevent future rapes. But as the report noted, Florida does not have a law requiring the kits to be submitted for testing. That decision rests with local law-enforcement agencies.
Meanwhile, an additional 3,500 rape kits come annually to FDLE.
The report proposed three plans to catch up on the backlog. All involve outsourcing, with potential time frames ranging from three years to 8 ½ years.
Negron and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said testing sexual assault kits should be considered part of FDLE’s core mission.
“I am having trouble wrapping my mind around outsourcing testing,” Bradley said. “It seems like FDLE should be doing this testing.”
“I don’t mean to question your commitment at all,” Negron told Pritt. “But there’s no way in less than six years or eight years, that FDLE could test these sexual assault kits and resolve the problem? Is that the best you can do?”
“Yes, sir, I do believe it’s the best we can do,” Pritt said. “The reality is, as a state lab, we cannot hire these scientists. We are trying to hire people who have biochemistry degrees.”
“Well, you could if you had more money, right?” asked Negron, who is slated to become Senate president in November.
“If we get to full staffing, these numbers will change,” Pritt said.
After the meeting, Negron told reporters he was committed to making sure that sexual assault kits are tested “in a timely and reliable manner.”
“Nothing we’re going to do in this committee is more important than that,” he said. “So we’ll address it accordingly, and if there are other infrastructure needs or other things that are perfectly legitimate, some of those things may have to wait until this issue is resolved. … We’ll do our part to provide the funding, and I hope that (FDLE) can respond by coming to us with a more aggressive plan on how they can get this done.”
A bill (HB 179) filed by Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, would establish time limits for local agencies to submit rape kits to FDLE for testing. The measure has passed one House panel and faces two more. A similar measure (SB 636), filed by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, faces three Senate committees.
The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.