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Gov. Scott signs bill to eliminate rape kit backlog

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Thousands of untested sexual assault kits sitting on shelves in police departments across the state could soon be headed toward crime labs.

Gov. Rick Scoot signed a bill Wednesday that requires rape kits to be tested within 120 days of submission to a state crime lab.

Scott’s Florida First budget also invests $10.7 million in Florida’s crime laboratories to eliminate Florida’s backlog of rape testing kits.

“This legislation will provide thousands of women with a renewed sense of safety and closure as they heal from the horrific crime of rape,” Scott said in a news release. “I am thankful for the hard work of Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Florida Legislature to make sure perpetrators are immediately brought to justice.”

Demand for the bill followed revelations that thousands of rape kits had been collected but not tested statewide. In September, Attorney General Pam Bondi called on lawmakers to increase funding for crime labs to address the backlog. In early January, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement reported that the state had more than 13,000 untested rape kits.

No one disputed that testing the DNA evidence could help prevent future rapes, but until Wednesday, Florida had not required law-enforcement agencies to submit rape kits for testing.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R- Fort Myers, and Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, sponsored bills setting time limits for testing such evidence, with the Senate version ultimately passing both chambers unanimously.

"It certainly changes the conversation," Adkins said. "I think for too long, these offenders, these predators, have been able to get away with it. … It's time we sent a clear message that in Florida, we will not tolerate sexual-assault crimes -- and we're coming after you."

Adkins said her bill could help get felons off the street.

“I am pleased to hear that Gov. Scott signed the legislation requiring timely submission and testing of rape kits.  It is important that victims receive justice," Adkins said. "Due to the serial nature of this crime, we need to send a clear message to these perpetrators that justice will be served.”

The proposal would require local law-enforcement agencies to submit the rape kits within 30 days of the beginning of their investigations or after being notified by victims or victims' representatives that they wish the evidence to be tested.

Part of the problem was funding. The Legislature has earmarked more than $2 million so far to deal with the untested kits.

"We want to make sure that sexual assault kits arriving at FDLE are also timely tested, so I think the plan that we've developed is fully funded and addresses the issue 100 percent," Sen. Joe Negron said.

Lawmakers said they hope the additional funding can help clear the backlog in three years or sooner

"The original estimate was eight or nine years and that was unacceptable," Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto said.

FDLE’s plan estimated clearing the backlog would cost around $8 million. That included money for pay raises and equipment. 

Clearing the backlog and securing proper funding to do it was one of Bondi’s top priorities

“As a career prosecutor, I have seen first-hand the heartache caused by sexual assault, and this legislation is a significant step toward bringing more predators to justice and helping victims heal,”Bondi said in a news release Wednesday. “I want to thank Gov. Scott for signing this important public safety legislation today to help ensure future kits are tested expediently, and for investing millions of dollars to begin testing the thousands of unprocessed kits in our state.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.