TALLAHASSEE — The backlog of untested rape kits in Florida is far worse than previously reported.
In their first comprehensive report examining the problem, state officials have found at least 13,435 untested rape kits in evidence rooms around the state, 25 percent more than previous estimates. It could take eight years and more than $30 million to get rid of the backlog, more than triple original cost estimates.
And the problem may still be understated. About 31 percent of the state's police departments did not respond to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's four-month survey to catalog the rape kit backlog.
The FDLE report shows the Tampa Bay region has far fewer untested kits than other regions and counties. In fact, law enforcement in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough reported just 389 untested kits in their possession. In South Florida, there are more than 7,000 untested kits in Miami-Dade or Broward and Palm Beach counties, according to the report.
"It is shocking, but unfortunately it is not unusual" said Rebecca O'Connor, vice president of public policy for a national group called the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
O'Connor said that nationwide, states are starting to do a better job of tracking what people in her field have known for years. Tens of thousands of victims who have subjected their bodies to highly invasive evidence collections have never seen justice, she said.
The number of untested kits potentially sends a terrible message to victims, said Kathleen Kempke, who heads Tampa Bay Crisis Center's sexual assault unit. She said it will no doubt cause many to question the value in even subjecting themselves to the hours-long medical process of submitting a rape kit.
But at the same time, Kempke is encouraged that state and local officials appear to be taking the issue more seriously than ever. She said if the state does aggressively attack the backlog, it will send a great message to victims that everything is being done to bring perpetrators to justice — even older cases that may have languished in evidence rooms.
During a visit to Tampa on Monday, Gov. Rick Scott noted the importance of rape kit funding. Asked if Florida could afford more than $30 million to eliminate the backlog, Scott didn't specify an amount but said, "I'm going to work with the Legislature and make sure it's fully funded. We're going to make sure that we fund public safety."
The Florida Legislature spent $300,000 to fund the report in 2015. Few state officials have been more vocal in bringing attention to the issue than Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who applauded Monday's report.
"Testing these kits is a public safety issue that must be addressed; and in this upcoming legislative session, I will work with lawmakers, law enforcement and victims' advocates to ensure our state crime labs have the resources needed to continue testing unprocessed sexual assault kits," Bondi said.
But that won't happen quickly or inexpensively, according to new FDLE estimates. The state's top law enforcement agency said it could take as long as eight and a half years and $32 million to handle just the 6,661 untested kits within the FDLE's jurisdiction. If the state Legislature agrees to let them outsource more testing, the FDLE said it could eliminate the backlog within three years at a cost of $8.1 million.
State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has objected to outsourcing the testing, saying the FDLE should make the kits a priority and outsource less critical cases.
The FDLE's plan doesn't account for another 6,774 untested kits in counties that have their own crime labs, such as Miami-Dade and Pinellas County. Funding to address those backlogs would be handled by the counties and local law enforcement agencies in those communities.
The FDLE's new report is also the first attempt to explain why more kits are not being submitted by local law enforcement in Florida. According to the survey of 279 local law enforcement agencies, 41 percent of the time kits were not submitted because a victim who first reported a crime refused to participate in the investigation or prosecution of the case for reasons not explained in the report. In 31 percent of the cases, local officials say they did not test kits because the State Attorney's Office declined to prosecute. In 20 percent of the cases, a suspect had already pleaded guilty. Finally, another 18 percent of withheld rape kits were from "non-reporting" victims — people who consented to a kit being collected but chose not to file a police report.
Public pressure has been growing for all rape kits to be submitted for testing because they could contain DNA evidence that can solve other cold cases and even identify serial sexual offenders. The FDLE reported that when the city of Houston tested 6,663 untested kits, they found 850 matches in a federal DNA database that has so far led to 29 convictions.
"We join experts in calling for the mandatory submission and testing of every rape kit booked into evidence and connected to a reported sexual assault," said Ilse Knect, director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, which has joined with other national organizations to bring attention to a national backlog of rape kits. "Each untested kit represents a missed opportunity to bring justice and healing to a survivor and increased safety to a community."
Knect said she was concerned that 31 percent of law enforcement agencies surveyed by the FDLE failed to report how many untested kits they have.
"The first step toward reform is determining what untested kits may exist," Knect said. "We strongly urge all agencies to report this work so that true reform can begin."
In December, President Barack Obama and Congress agreed to set aside $45 million in federal funding to help local law enforcement pare down their rape kit backlogs. FDLE officials said last week they will seek a share of the funding. Already, the federal government has given the State Attorney's Office in Jacksonville nearly $2 million to help address that region's backlog.
Negron, chairman of a key Senate budget committee that has jurisdiction over the FDLE, said regardless of additional federal funding, he is committed to making sure there is money for the state to test all the untested kits that need to be reviewed.
Times staff writer Thad Moore contributed to this report. Contact Jeremy Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.