Commend state Sen. Joe Negron for coming around and realizing that solving thousands of rape cases and putting criminals behind bars are far greater priorities than state pride.
That’s what it amounted to when he insisted that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had to be the lead agency testing rape kits that have languished for years, unexamined. There are at least 13,000 untested kits statewide, a backlog that has allowed rapists not only to remain free, but also free to commit the heinous offense again. More than 3,700 are in Miami-Dade County alone.
Lawmakers learned last week that if FDLE were to test all the backlogged kits under its jurisdiction, the process could take up to eight years.
Sen. Negron, R-Stuart, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, said that timeline was unacceptable — and he’s correct.
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But even after he learned that the amount of time could be slashed to three years if some of the kits were outsourced to private labs, he insisted that it was FDLE’s job, its mission, alone to do the testing.
It was a needlessly stubborn stance that was at odds with his declaration last week that, “At the very top of our priority list is making sure sexual-assault kits are tested in a timely and reliable manner.”
Fortunately, Sen. Negron himself recognized the dangerous disconnect. Now, according to state Attorney General Pam Bondi, Sen. Negron is in agreement that some of the kits should be outsourced in order to speed the cause of justice. Ms. Bondi rightly has made this issue a priority and helped persuade the senator do the same.
Still, this solution, though practical, does not get to the root of the problem law-enforcement agencies are facing statewide, even with a drop in crime. The issue, of course, is the lack of funding and resources. Where the state once provided local police agencies many tools of investigation, this has fallen by the wayside, and the departments struggle to fill the gap, not just in rape cases, but also in several others types of crime.
Last year, according to a Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau story, it took state-run labs twice as long to process crime-scene evidence as it did three years before. Florida Highway Patrol officers are driving old cars, putting them and the public in peril should a chase occur; salaries are lagging and experienced detectives are going elsewhere.
As subcommittee chair, Sen. Negron, too, should delve into why more than 10,000 rape kits were allowed to stack up, unexamined. Local departments say that some of the perpetrators were known to them and pleaded guilty, or that the victim declined to pursue the case. But do those reasons cover the majority of cases? Clearly, that should be examined, too, and better guidelines established for expediting these cases.
Last year, the Legislature cut more than $400 million in taxes from the state budget. Would any Floridian have protested if some of the money had gone to FDLE, hamstrung by a shortage of the scientists and technicians who test evidence for local departments? In light of these needless deficiencies, lawmakers should think long and hard about the unmet needs that are making Floridians’ lives more difficult before accommodating Gov. Rick Scott’s tax-cut request. This year, he’d like $1 billion.
Think how many rape kits just a fraction of that amount could get tested.