Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul and a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Tuesday introduced legislation aiming to prevent future backlogs of sexual assault kits by creating the first statutory guidelines in Wisconsin for how to process them.
The legislation, which would create standards for when such kits must be tested, aims to prevent a backlog for which Kaul slammed former Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel during the 2018 campaign for not addressing more quickly.
The bill represents a major legislative effort to stem problems with the processing of sexual assault kits dating back to at least 2014.
“This legislation sends a clear message, which is that we can never have another backlog of untested sexual assault kits again in Wisconsin,” Kaul said of the bill authored by Sens. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay; Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset; and Reps. John Macco, R-Ledgeview; Melissa Sargent, D-Madison; and David Steffen, R-Green Bay.
A spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said the governor would sign the bill if it makes it to his desk. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said on social media the bill is “a good start” and Senate Republicans will discuss it in coming weeks. Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Steffen and Macco began working on the issue with Schimel, and Vos looks forward to learning more from them.
Under the proposed bill, health care professionals, law enforcement agencies and state crime laboratories, all of which are involved in the collection and processing of sexual assault kits, would be subject to new requirements.
Health care professionals who collect sexual assault kits, typically sexual assault nurse examiners, would be required to notify a law enforcement agency within 24 hours of collecting the kit if the victim wants to report the assault. If not, the health care professional would be required to submit the kit within 72 hours to the state crime labs for storage for up to 10 years in case the victim decides to report to law enforcement.
For victims who choose to report, the law enforcement agency that receives the kit would be required to submit it to the state crime labs for processing within two weeks. After processing, the state crime labs would send the kits back to law enforcement for storage.
The unveiling of the bill comes after the Department of Justice on Friday announced its work analyzing untested rape kits had resulted in at least six people being charged so far.
Years in making
The department in 2014 first discovered the existence of nearly 7,000 untested sexual assault kits in law enforcement and hospital custody across the state. Sexual assault kits can contain evidence that is crucial to finding sexual predators or freeing the wrongly convicted. When asked why the development of the bill took so long, Kaul said the bill addresses a number of complicated issues and required broad input.
In 2015, the state received $4 million in federal grant funding to test Wisconsin’s kits, which began in 2016. Thousands of sexual assault kits dating as far back as the 1980s sat untested on police and hospital shelves in Wisconsin because suspects were already identified, prosecutors thought cases were too weak to continue or victims wouldn’t cooperate.
Schimel in September 2018 announced the DOJ had finished testing 4,100 kits. Kaul had chided him during the campaign over the issue, arguing the department’s testing of the kits took too long. Schimel argued it took time to inventory the kits and find private labs to test them.
Schimel last year said the chief reasons the kits had gone untested were because law enforcement sometimes didn’t believe the victims, or the crime was solved and the additional evidence wasn’t needed. Schimel had said testing every kit was critical.
In Friday’s announcement, the DOJ said of the 6,838 previously unsubmitted sexual assault kits, it had designated 4,471 for testing. The department has completed testing on 4,160 of the kits, and identified 1,605 that had DNA from a person other than the victim.
Of those, the DOJ uploaded information from 908 of the kits to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a tool for linking violent crimes. Of those, 496 kits produced at least one hit, and 249 resulted in a “warm hit,” or a DNA profile that matched the profile of an offender who was identified in the case associated with the kit.
The kits uploaded to CODIS also resulted in 101 “forensic hits,” or hits that matched with a profile in the forensic index, which contains profiles from crimes but are connected to incidents, not specific individuals.