A key state legislator chastised the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Wednesday for giving him a report that suggests it could take six to eight years to catch up with a newly identified backlog of 13,000 untested rape kits statewide.
State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said the agency’s estimates are unacceptable, lack creativity and have a “bureaucratic ring” to them. Negron said that given the issue is of utmost importance to Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Legislature, the agency needs to be more aggressive.
“It sounds like FDLE doesn’t really wants to do this,” Negron told FDLE Assistant Commissioner Jennifer C. Pritt after she said six to eight years was the best the agency could do.
Pritt defended the report, saying the agency is struggling to retain employees and hire staff for its crime lab. Pritt said the agency has a 24 percent vacancy rate that they cannot fill because their pay is uncompetitive.
Pritt said FDLE has requested almost $4 million extra from the Legislature this year to pay its crime lab analysts more and help fill vacancies.
“If we get to full staff, then these [rape kit] numbers will change,” Pritt said.
Even if the state were to have a hiring surge, Pritt warned it can take 18 to 20 months to fully train a crime lab analyst.
The exchange on Wednesday came during a committee hearing before the Senate Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, which Negron chairs.
Last week, FDLE released a $300,000 report that shows Florida has more than 13,000 untested rape kits sitting in evidence rooms around the state that have never been submitted by local law enforcement for examination. About 6,600 of those kits are under FDLE’s jurisdiction. Another nearly 6,800 kits are the responsibility of counties that have their own crime labs, like Pinellas and Miami-Dade.
The reasons rape kits are untested vary, according to FDLE’s survey of 279 law enforcement agencies. About 41 percent of the time kits were not submitted because a victim who first reported a crime refused to participate in the investigation or prosecution of the case. In 31 percent of the cases, local officials say they did not test kits because the State Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute.
In the report, FDLE said it could take as little as three years and $8.1 million to process the 6,600 untested kits under its jurisdiction, plus 2,000 older kits that have come in recently because of growing public attention. But that would require outsourcing 2,800 rape kits for testing annually, which Negron has objected to. Negron insisted FDLE should be able to handle the kits in-house.
But FDLE’s report shows that if it followed Negron’s recommendation, it would cost $32 million and more than eight years to clear the backlog.
Negron told the agency to come back with recommendations for a quicker way to test all the rape kits in-house.
“At the very top of our priority list is making sure sexual assault kits are tested in a timely and reliable manner,” Negron said. “Nothing we are going to do in this committee is more important than that.”
Contact Jeremy Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @jeremyswallace.