TAMPA, Fla. – Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi says thousands of untested rape kits are sitting in the evidence rooms of law enforcement agencies across the state, though the exact number is anybody's guess.
During a news conference Wednesday at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, Bondi called for more funding in the next state budget to process the sexual assault kits.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is conducting a study on the number of untested kits and will present the findings to the Legislature in January. The state has committed over $300,000 for the study.
Backlogs for rape testing kits have been a nationwide issue in recent years.
The Joyful Heart Foundation, founded by actress Mariska Hargitay when she played a detective on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, is an advocacy group for rape victims. It has pushed the issue of ending rape kit testing backlogs nationwide. It defines a backlogged kit as one that hasn't been submitted to an accredited public or private crime lab for testing within 10 days of being booked into evidence, or hasn't been tested within 30 days of receipt by a crime lab.
In Florida, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office said in July it had 1,500 backlogged cases on its evidence shelves, with some more than a decade old. The Hollywood Police Department in Broward County turned up 94 untested kits, while the Pasco County Sheriff's Office found 340 kits in 2014 that hadn't been sent for testing. All three agencies say they're working toward ending the backlog.
Bondi says sometimes a suspect will plead guilty before the kits need to be analyzed, but it's still important to collect the DNA in case it's a match for other crimes.
Although officials don't know how severe the backlogs are at local police agencies, part of the quandary is the cost of processing. It costs around $800 to $1,000 per kit to test. Some jurisdictions decline to process the kits in certain circumstances, such as when a suspect confesses.
Bondi added that another problem comes from a lack of funding at the FDLE, where crime lab analysts are paid less than their counterparts in other states.
The FDLE recently asked for $35 million to hire more DNA analysts and pay them a competitive salary. Bondi said it's unclear how much money the FDLE will really need to hire more analysts — it could take more than $35 million — to plow through the backlog.
But the work is essential, she said, pointing to the case of a former Orlando resident who was raped 21 years ago. The woman, Kellie Greene, who spoke at the news conference, said it took the police department there three years to solve the case. The delay was due to the fact that Greene didn't know her rapist and the case was of a lower priority than other DNA cases at the time. A DNA match was eventually made with a suspect, and the rapist is now serving time in a Florida prison.
Bondi said that enhanced DNA technology means that some cases might be solved now, when they weren't in the past.
"We have the potential to solve cold cases and lock up sexual predators," said Bondi.