Through a $1.5 million federal grant, Tennessee is outsourcing the testing of at least 550 rape kits to a private Florida lab in a move aimed at reducing processing times. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) said the state awarded a contract to DNA Labs International in Deerfield Beach, Fl., after a competitive bid process, reports the Associated Press. The agency said it plans to test up to 1,000 rape kits if more grant funding becomes available by year's end, at a cost of $2,155 per kit. “With the help of the Governor’s administration and the Tennessee General Assembly, we’re continuing to take steps to improve our Forensic Services Division,” said TBI Director David Rausch. “This outsourcing project helps us take an immediate step, as we continue to discuss longer-term fixes.” The state’s turnaround times for sexual assault kits was in the spotlight after the high-profile killing of teacher Eliza Fletcher in September. The man charged with killing Fletcher was charged in a 2021 rape of a different woman when the rape kit from that case was finally processed.
As of October, the average turnaround time for a rape kit was 43 weeks at a Knoxville lab, 42.4 weeks at a Jackson lab, and 32.7 weeks at a Nashville lab. The agency blamed the delays on staffing woes and low pay that complicates recruiting and keeping scientists. Funding for new staff positions and pay raises is included in Gov. Bill Lee’s budget proposal, which is pending in the legislature. Rausch has discussed plans for is agency to reduce turnaround times, saying his aim was to reduce them to eight to 12 weeks for all evidence within a year. Some efforts include offering overtime for lab workers; operating the labs on weekends; and contracting with retired TBI workers to help provide training so current scientists can shift time spent training employees to more casework. Under the new contract, DNA Labs International will provide analysis and any related courtroom testimony. TBI scientists must review the results of analysis for each kit under FBI guidelines and, if warranted, will enter resulting DNA profiles into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.