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Florida data shows 10,900 sexual assault kits still untested

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. >> Nearly 11,000 rape kits have not been tested in Florida, according to statistics released by the state Tuesday, mirroring backlogs at law enforcement agencies nationwide because of a lack of funding.

In a spreadsheet released on its website, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement showed that 10,900 kits from 262 agencies around the state have not been tested. Seven law enforcement agencies did not report data.

The agency said the data is preliminary and the agencies might update the information.

Rape kit testing backlogs has been an issue across the U.S. In September, federal officials said an estimated 70,000 rape kits sitting in laboratories and evidence collection rooms across the country will be tested with a combined $79 million in federal and New York City funds designed to cut the backlog of untested DNA evidence in 27 states.

The FDLE is conducting a more than $300,000 study on the number of untested kits and will present the findings to the Legislature in January.

Part of the quandary is the cost of processing. Attorney General Pam Bondi has called for more funding in the next state budget to process the kits, which cost about $800 to $1,000 per kit for testing.

The ongoing kit survey was the subject of a hearing in Tallahassee on Tuesday, where legislators heard from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement about the results so far.

After hearing from both agency officials as well as some local law enforcement officials, several senators said many of the reasons they heard about the lack of testing were “reasonable.”

Some of the reasons cited were that sometimes the suspect in the crime was already in custody, or that local prosecutors had decided against pressing charges. Another reason was that some victims didn’t want to report the incident to law enforcement. One FDLE official did say that attitudes about sexual assault have changed over the last three decades.

“I don’t think there’s evidence that’s there been a callous attitude with law enforcement processing these in a timely manner,” said Sen. Joe Negron, a Senate Republican who oversees spending for the state’s law enforcement agency.

However, the FDLE’s spreadsheet showed that 7,168 kits “should have been submitted.” The spreadsheet didn’t define why a kit should — or should not — be submitted. But some jurisdictions won’t process the kits in certain circumstances, such as when a suspect confesses.

Bondi said in September that another problem comes from a lack of funding at the state law enforcement agency, where crime lab analysts are paid less than their counterparts in other states. The agency has asked for $35 million to hire more DNA analysts and pay them a competitive salary. Bondi said it’s unclear how much money the department will really need to hire more analysts — it could take more than $35 million — to plow through the backlog.

On Tuesday, Bondi wrote in a statement that her office will continue to work with law enforcement to clear the backlog.

“We understand it will likely take a number of years to process these kits, and we look forward to reviewing FDLE’s final assessment once it is completed,” she wrote.

State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Republican from Fort Myers, filed a proposal recently to speed up the testing of rape kits. Her bill will be taken up during the 2016 session.

“These kits represent victims,” she said. “They deserve to have the evidence tested so that the perpetrators of their crimes can be brought to justice.”

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