Jacksonville, Fla. - Gov. Rick Scott joined Attorney General Pam Bondi, Rep. Janet Adkins and other Florida lawmakers and advocates in Tampa on Thursday to ceremonially sign legislation to reduce the turnaround time for the processing and testing of rape kits.
Senate Bill 636, passed during this year's legislative session, requires kits to be submitted within 30 days to a crime lab and tested within 120 days.
DNA testing of forensic evidence contained in the kits could help law enforcement agencies catch rapists and prevent future rapes, but Florida law did not require kits to be submitted for testing. That decision has rested with local law-enforcement agencies.
Adkins sponsored the House version of the bill and was introduced after Bondi called on lawmakers to increase funding for crime labs to address the testing backlog.
The State Attorney's Office said it's eager to prosecute whatever it can, so far, from 1,392 untested rape kits and that victims should be encouraged by that.
"The message to them is we remember, we're validating it was a dramatic event. We're getting every lead possible to get justice," said Assistant State Attorney Teresa Simak with the Special Assault Division.
A Federal Department of Law Enforcement report recommended that the state spend at least $8 million over a three-year period to test all the pending rape kits.
Backlogs are a national problem, said Jennifer Dritt, executive director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence -- and jurisdictions that have cleaned up their backlogs have caught a number of rapists.
"They solved a lot of rapes, and they found quite a few serial rapists, which was not surprising to people who do the work," Dritt said.
According to FDLE, New York City in 2000 began to test its entire backlog -- 17,000 rape kits -- resulting in more than 2,000 DNA matches and 200 cold-case prosecutions. In Michigan, the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office identified 188 potential serial rapists and obtained 15 convictions. In Houston, the testing of 6,663 rape kits resulted in 850 matches in the federal DNA database.
In its report, FDLE found that kits were not tested for several reasons, including victims declining to proceed with investigations, state attorney's offices declining to prosecute and suspects pleading guilty.
Also, some victims do not wish to file police reports. In those situations, kits may be held by local law enforcement or by rape-crisis centers for periods of time in case victims change their minds. Kits are forwarded to laboratories for testing only if reports are filed and victims have consented to testing.
Anyone who's a victim of an unsolved sexual assault case can call the State Attorney's victims' information line at 904-255-3076 to check on rape kit processing.
News Service of Florida contributed to this report.