Editorials

Kudos to Florida officials for new laudable laws on HIV prevention, testing rape kits

It's a case of bad news and lousy publicity adding up to good, remedial legislation. On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law one bill that creates a needle-exchange program to battle and, it is hoped, slow the spread of HIV through intravenous drug use. The governor also put his signature on legislation that requires state crime labs to test rape kits within 120 days of receiving them.

These two bills alone speak highly of lawmakers' bipartisan effort to tackle head-on two unsustainable scourges. And we commend Scott for following through, acknowledging the challenges that the laws will now confront.

The IDEA Act -- Miami-Dade Infectious Disease Elimination Act -- creates a pilot program in the county to implement syringe exchanges. Addicts who use intravenous drugs such as heroin will be able to turn in used needles for ones that are sterile, few questions asked, no threat of arrest.

For years, the concept has been controversial. Critics contend that such state-sanctioned programs condone or encourage illegal drug use. Here's what the Herald said in 1999, when Jim McDonough, then Florida's drug czar appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, rejected experts' recommendations: "Mr. McDonough says that he's convinced that such exchanges give sanction to drug use without the intended benefit of reducing HIV infections. But given the horrific spread of HIV, particularly through minority communities where drug addicts often share needles (and the virus), a flat ban is shortsighted. A carefully constructed exchange program might help curb the disease while encouraging addicts to come in for treatment."

And finally, that's just what will be created with the legislation Scott signed, a carefully constructed exchange program. The program will be run under the auspices of the University of Miami, a venerated institution committed to improving the quality of life in this community, even for drug addicts.

Right now, Florida leads the nation in new HIV infections, with South Florida, not surprisingly, Ground Zero for growth of the disease. The program could lay the foundation to reverse this unfortunate trend statewide.

Another new law requires state crime labs to examine rape kits they receive from police departments within 120 days. The kits might yield crucial evidence in catching and prosecuting rapists. Even better, the state Legislature also provided $10.7 million in funding to help whittle away at an outrageous backlog of rape kits that have gone unexamined for too many years.

Credit Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi for getting the ball rolling on this one. Unexamined DNA evidence, which could put violent criminals behind bars, are a problem across the nation, sometimes the result of budget and staffing cuts at the labs and sometimes the result of other crimes, homicide, for instance, taking priority.

Florida, again no surprise, is among the top 20 states with untested sexual-assault kits, created when rape victims report the crime to authorities. DNA evidence then is collected to help identify a suspect. At the beginning of the year, there were at least 13,000 untested kits statewide. More than 3,700 of those were in Miami-Dade County alone. (The Manatee County Sheriff's Office has 90 untested kits, Bay News 9 recently reported.)

That's a lot of criminals getting way with a heinous crime and remaining free to offend again and again.

We commend these elected officials for pushing back against preventable disease and unsolved crime.

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