Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday signed nine bills, including a high-profile measure requiring local law-enforcement agencies to submit "rape kits" to be tested and another allowing the creation of a needle-exchange program in Miami-Dade County.
Scott praised SB 636, which would establish time limits for sexual-assault evidence --- known as rape kits --- to be submitted to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for testing. He said in a statement the move would "provide thousands of women with a renewed sense of safety and closure as they heal from the horrific crime of rape."
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."
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.
Also, the new state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 includes $10.7 million to help eliminate the backlog of untested rape kits. Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials told lawmakers that fiscal constraints had led to the backlog.
Among the other measures approved Wednesday, Scott signed SB 242, which establishes a pilot program that seeks to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases by allowing drug users to swap used needles and syringes for clean ones. The privately funded program will be run by the University of Miami and would expire in 2021.
Similar bills had been filed dating back to at least 2013 but did not pass, at least in part because of concerns that lawmakers would appear to be sanctioning drug use.
However, rising HIV infection rates --- Florida has the highest rate of new infections in the U.S. --- played a key role in the debate this year. The House passed the bill by a 95-20 vote, while the Senate supported it 37-2.
"I think having no government funding tied to the program and having it be done all through private donations really helped," said Rep. Katie Edwards, a Plantation Democrat who joined Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, is sponsoring the proposal.
Edwards said she looks forward to seeing the results of the pilot program "so we can justify taking the program to additional counties and revisiting its effectiveness and making sure we can build better health policy on that."
"There's now a scientific and political consensus that drug use is best treated as a health issue," Bill Piper, senior director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “Hopefully this pilot syringe program is just the beginning of major changes in Florida.”
Other bills Scott signed Wednesday included an adoption bill (SB 590), sponsored by Adkins and Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, that allows judges to make adoption decisions based on "the best interest of the child."
The impetus for the measure was a conflict between two laws governing adoption. One has required judges to rule based on the best interests of children, while the other allows private adoption agencies to intervene in open adoption cases where parents' rights have not yet been terminated. In such cases, adoption agencies typically name the people that biological parents prefer to adopt children --- even if the children have thrived in other placements.
The new law allows judges to give greater weight to the children's bonds with foster families or other caregivers. In cases where children are old enough to express a preference, that may be considered as well.