In 1979, Wisconsin became the first state to create a crime victims’ bill of rights, providing survivors the right to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect. I, for one, take these rights very seriously — I’ve even introduced legislation expanding some of these rights.
So I take issue when, on the eve of an upcoming election, Attorney General Brad Schimel recently tried taking a victory lap on sexual assault kit testing under his watch.
After a sexual assault, a survivor may undergo a forensic examination to collect and preserve evidence from the assault for a sexual assault evidence kit, colloquially known as a “rape kit.” Rape kit DNA evidence is tested, then analyzed and compared against DNA databases to hopefully identify offenders, connect suspects with currently unsolved or future offenses, and ensure justice for survivors.
But for a rape kit to afford justice to a survivor, someone actually has to test it.
In May 2014, a Wisconsin Department of Justice inventory survey of local law enforcement agencies’ storage determined Wisconsin had more than 6,000 untested rape kits. This finding was echoed nationally when a 2015 USA Today report revealed a staggering backlog of 70,000 untested rape kits across the country.
A few months later, Wisconsin received $4 million in grant funding to help us expeditiously address our rape kit backlog. Despite completing a kit survey less than two years prior, the DOJ took months to develop a second survey of the rape kit backlog in March 2016, delaying rape kit testing until its completion. That survey found there was a backlog of 5,800 kits.
By the end of September 2016, nearly a third of local law enforcement agencies still hadn’t responded to the DOJ’s survey. Not a single rape kit had been tested.
In January 2017, after receiving an additional $1.1 million in grant funding, Schimel erroneously claimed “a few hundred” rape kits had been tested. Two days later, a DOJ spokesperson corrected the estimate. Only nine kits had been tested.
Four months later, DOJ revealed the latest inventory had underestimated the number of untested kits sitting on shelves across Wisconsin: There were actually 572 more than the previously reported 5,800, bringing the estimate to 6,372 untested kits. At that point 63 kits had been tested — less than 2 percent of the 4,600 kits eligible and slated for testing.
A year later, in May 2018, the DOJ still hadn’t tested more than half of kits slated for testing. And now, nearly an entire term in office and millions in grant funding later, Schimel is promising to test the remaining kits by the end of the year.
But let’s be clear: Just because Schimel stopped ignoring the rape kit backlog when it became politically convenient doesn’t mean he gets to take a victory lap. He has spent three years shirking responsibility for inaction (and not for lack of attempts to hold him accountable). He’s blamed his predecessors, saying the backlog was “inherited.” He’s blamed crime lab staffing and funding levels. He even went so far as claiming there is no backlog at all.
And all the while, justice has been delayed for survivors in Wisconsin.
Regardless of whether Schimel keeps his end-of-year goal, this problem isn’t going away. We need real leadership and someone who is willing to take responsibility for their actions. And we need an attorney general who understands survivors have a right to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect, regardless of whether or not it happens to be politically expedient.
Melissa Sargent is a Democratic state representative from Madison.
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