A year after the state Legislature failed to streamline the testing of evidence in sexual assault cases due to intense partisan wrangling, a bipartisan group of lawmakers are back this legislative session with similar proposals.
One of the bills, which is set to receive a public hearing on Thursday, would provide some of the first statutory guidelines for how to process sexual assault kits, which could help preserve physical evidence to aid in prosecution. While the legislation failed last year after the Assembly version of the bill incorporated provisions Democrats strongly opposed, lawmakers have reintroduced it this year without such measures in the hope of getting it to the governor’s desk.
A second bill would establish a database for information on the status of sexual assault kit processing to be stored and made available to victims.
Sexual assault kits include materials to help collect and preserve evidence related to a sexual assault, oftentimes containing DNA, that can aid prosecutors in finding sexual predators or freeing the wrongly convicted.
The first bill, dealing with the creation of statutory guidelines, is almost identical to a bipartisan bill the Republican-controlled Senate passed in October 2019 but which failed to get a nod in the Republican Assembly during the last legislative cycle. The bipartisan bill had the support of Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul and a number of advocates, health care and law enforcement professionals and victims.
The bill’s Assembly Republican cosponsor, Rep. David Steffen, R-Green Bay, said he dropped the more partisan provisions and is confident it will get to the governor’s desk.
“The prospects are very good,” Steffen said. “We went through the process last time and found that some of the amendments were a bit of a challenge. We wanted to avoid any controversy and just stick to getting a clean bill drafted and passed.”
As he did last year, Kaul is supporting the legislation.
“Establishing statutory requirements for the processing, tracking and storing of sexual assault kits is critical for public safety,” said Department of Justice spokeswoman Gillian Drummond in a statement. “DOJ continues to make our communities safer by prosecuting cases from the previous backlog of untested sexual assault kits, but the best way to prevent a future backlog is to codify how sexual assault kits are processed and stored.”
Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, who has championed the creation of guidelines for sexual assault kits, said she is encouraged that Republicans are prioritizing the legislation so early in the legislative session.
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.
Last year, GOP lawmakers in the Assembly wouldn’t commit to a public hearing on the bill, and instead passed a different proposal that aimed to prevent future sexual assault kit backlogs, but also included controversial provisions such as allowing sexual assault victims access to private school vouchers, even if they wouldn’t otherwise qualify based on their income.
It also would have required law enforcement to notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement of immigrants in the country illegally who are arrested for sexual assault.
The bill was never taken up by the Senate and therefore never made it to Gov. Tony Evers’ desk. Steffen said lawmakers in the state Senate had preferred the original version of the legislation — the version he’s supporting again this year — instead of the updated version he authored last year that senators opposed.
The effort to create guidelines for the storage and processing of sexual assault kits stems back to 2014, when the Department of Justice first discovered the existence of nearly 7,000 untested sexual assault kits in law enforcement and hospital custody across the state.
With federal grant funding, Wisconsin began testing those kits in 2016 and finished in late 2019. The sexual assault kit backlog was a major campaign issue in the 2018 race for attorney general between Kaul and former Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel.
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 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.