On Wednesday, Florida governor Rick Scott, a Republican, signed two progressive health and justice bills into law. The first will compel law enforcement agencies to submit rape kits to the state for testing within 30 days of beginning an investigation; the other will launch a needle exchange pilot program for injection drug users. Both address urgent issues in Florida: A recent audit showed that the state had 13,435 untested rape kits in the system, and Florida has the highest rate of new HIV cases in the nation.
The road to SB 636, the new rape-kit law, began in September, when Attorney General Pam Bondi asked lawmakers for more crime-lab funding to chip away at the backlog of untested kits. The state’s audit found that 9,484 of the unsubmitted kits were overdue—some dated as far back as the ’70s. Before Scott signed the bill on Wednesday, law enforcement officials were not required to hand over rape kits to be tested. Now, once an agency submits a rape kit to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the department will have just 120 days to test it. When the law goes into effect on July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, the state budget will include $10.7 million for more testing of backlogged kits. “As a career prosecutor, I have seen first-hand the heartache caused by sexual predators,” Bondi said when the legislature passed SB 636. “This legislation is a significant step toward bringing more predators to justice and helping victims heal.”
The other bill Scott signed on Wednesday, the Miami-Dade Infectious Disease Elimination Act, will establish a needle exchange program run by the University of Miami in Miami-Dade County. Miami-Date had the highest rate of new HIV infections in the U.S. in 2014, and adjacent Broward County came in second place. Of Florida’s 6,240 new HIV infections in 2015, 38 percent came from those two counties.
Florida’s Republican-majority state legislature and conservative governor are the latest unlikely needle-exchange advocates to come around to the proven method of harm reduction. Needle exchanges were once shunned by conservative politicians, who argued that they’d encourage drug use. A rising heroin epidemic and a consequential rise in HIV and hepatitis infections have forced many former naysayers to capitulate to scientific evidence and admit that people probably aren’t sitting around with a bunch of heroin just waiting for the government to give them a clean needle with which to inject it. In January, Congress lifted the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs, paving the way for lawmakers in Kentucky, Indiana, central Oregon, California’s Orange County, and Ohio to plan such initiatives. In Florida, the pilot program will get all its funding from private grants and donations, with no support from state, county, or municipal coffers.