More than 10,000 untested rape kits in evidence rooms around the state might finally be analyzed thanks to a federal budget deal passed by Congress in December.
Officials with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed this week that they are applying for a variety of grants, including a share of $45 million that Congress and President Barack Obama recently set aside to help cities and states test older rape kits that are sitting on shelves with potential evidence that could help identify serial rapists and solve cold cases.
Federal funding is becoming available at the same time FDLE is expected to release new details to the Legislature in January on exactly how many untested kits there are and provide some answers to why they have gone untested.
State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said he’s happy to hear the federal government could help with the costs, but is still going to make the issue a top financial priority in 2016 regardless.
“I am committed to providing this funding, whether or not FDLE gets one of those grants,” said Negron, who is the chairman of the Senate budget subcommittee that has oversight over the issue.
FDLE’s crime labs are barely keeping up with the 2,400 rape kits it gets annually because of increasing workloads and high turnover rates among lab personnel. The average number of days to process rape kits by FDLE has increased over the last year from 81 days to 88 days. At a committee hearing in November, agency officials said they could process up to 3,500 rape kits a year if they receive more money for pay raises to halt turnover and for additional equipment. But FDLE would not be able to handle the 10,000 older untested kits coming into the lab along with the current increasing workload. In November, FDLE officials estimated it would take at least $9 million to process all of the older kits.
The federal government in 2015 handed out more than $30 million in grants to 20 cities, counties and states to help them get on top of the backlog, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees the grant process. Michigan, Kansas and Nevada are among the states that have received grants ranging from $1.2 million to $2 million to address their backlogs.
Florida has already benefited from some of that funding as well. In September, the Justice Department award $2 million to the State Attorney’s Office in the 4th Judicial Circuit in Jacksonville. That money is funding a cold case sexual assault unit to review untested rape kits in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties. Additionally, FDLE won a $1.2 million grant from the New York District Attorney’s Office, which has its own grant program, to cover the testing of the rape kits from the 4th Judicial Circuit.
Public and political pressure has been growing nationwide to analyze untested rape kits to collect DNA evidence that can help solve past sexual assaults and other crimes. In Detroit when the city tested 10,000 previously untested kits, it resulted in identifying 652 potential serial rapists that have already resulted in dozens of convictions, as of October.
In Florida, State Attorney General Pam Bondi has become a major advocate for testing older kits. At a press conference in Tampa in the fall, she said the older kits are key to solving cold cases and locking up more sexual predators.
Currently the state does not require all rape kits collected by local law enforcement to be tested. Local law enforcement agencies choose which kits are sent to the state crime lab.
FDLE officials say their preliminary research of why local officials don’t send rape kits for testing are varied. In some instances, a victim no longer wants an investigation to continue, or a case is not being pursued by prosecutors. In others, a suspect has already pleaded guilty and the kits were never submitted because evidence was not needed.
Another big reason is simply due to technology. Older kits were collected 10 to 25 years ago when DNA evidence technology was not very advanced, so they were never submitted for modern DNA testing that can now better identify suspects.