Preventing a backlog of sexual assault evidence kits becomes a bipartisan effort again

Assembly’s past partisan battles are glossed over as positive policy prevails

By: - October 6, 2021 7:00 am

Josh Kaul, Ilse Knect, Ian Henderson, Nathan Cihlar (L – R) at a news conference on rape kit backlog elimination. (Photo by Melanie Conklin.)

For 25 years, Jessica Lind has worked with victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking and human trafficking. As the program coordinator for The Women’s Community, Inc., a nonprofit in Marathon County, one of her roles is to respond to the hospital emergency room and provide support as sexual assault victims endure forensic exams for evidence.

“Recently I responded to the hospital and was witness to the excruciating swabs, combing and probing of a person’s body, which is now considered a crime scene,” said Lind. “After four hours of evidence being collected, the victim asked me what will happen with the evidence that the nurse had collected, and when she might get her clothing back.”

Jessica Lind, program coordinator for The Women’s Community, Inc. | Wisconsin Eye

Lind recalled the scene Tuesday morning during her testimony at a public hearing before the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety. She was speaking in favor of two bills, AB 67, which establishes a storage and processing procedure for sexual assault kits and AB 87, which sets up a database where law enforcement or a victim can track the kit through the process.

“I couldn’t tell her with 100% certainty a time frame as [to when], or if, the kit would be tested at all,” Lind continued. “After what was a difficult decision for this victim to come forward to the hospital and make a police report that night, testing the sexual assault kits sends a strong message to her that she and her case matter — that her decision to come in and go through horrific details and a long and uncomfortable probing would mean something. We owe it to her and to all survivors to send their kits in to be tested. Each kit comes from a person who suffered a terrible trauma, and then willingly came in and provided evidence. We need to ensure that there will not be a backlog ever again. And we owe it to victims by passing this legislation.”

Her testimony was followed by staff from the state Department of Justice and others praising the progress on these bills, which failed in the previous session after they became mired in politics.

Rep. David Steffen (R-Green Bay), who last session was at the center of the battle as the author of both of the competing bills — one that was  universally lauded by experts and another that was panned as partisan and detrimental to victims — adamantly laid out his case for the current, bipartisan bills on Tuesday. Last session, Steffen testified that while there were enough floor votes to pass the bipartisan bill, Assembly leadership would not allow it to come to a vote unless the majority of Republicans in their caucus would agree to vote for it.

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Steffen said that over three decades, 8,000 or more kits became part of a backlog, untested by the crime lab or sitting in various sites around the state. Since becoming attorney general in 2019, Josh Kaul has announced a number of people who were arrested after formerly backlogged kits were tested. The most recent was the announcement Friday of a Verona man who, after a backlogged kit was tested, has been charged with the alleged sexual assault of a child under age 16 that occurred in 2008.

Rep. David Steffen and Sen. Robert Cowles | Wisconsin Eye screenshot

“Testing sexual assault kits can make the difference in whether investigations result in prosecutions and justice for survivors,” said Kaul in the Oct. 1 announcement. “We must ensure that every sexual assault kit in Wisconsin is sent to the state crime labs.”

One of the current bills creates two separate paths and timelines the evidence kits will follow through the system — one for kits from victims who want the evidence collected to be immediately processed, and another for kits retained for future processing if the victim decides to do so. The timelines were set up in collaboration, said Steffen, with all the stakeholders “to ensure that it met their expectations and capabilities, while for the first time establishing some date-certain time frames for the victims.”

Kits that are to be processed immediately must be turned over to law enforcement within 24 hours of receipt at the hospital. Police then have 72 hours to collect the kit, and 14 days to get it to the crime laboratory in Madison. The kits collected must be kept for 50 years.

The second bill, Steffen explained to the committee, creates a real-time system sending alerts and reminders on when the sexual assault evidence kit needs to move through the process via an online tracking system.

“The system will be survivor-centric, meaning that survivors will be able to have access to real time data regarding their sexual assault kits,” explained Steffen. “This will be hugely important as sexual assault cases move through the criminal justice system, and is just as important as survivors seek to heal from such a traumatic event. … A real-time tracking system will also help prosecutors, nurses, the criminal justice lab and the police as everyone will be on the same page as to the survivors kit.” He added that the statewide tracking system “will also help law enforcement enact justice and catch repeat offenders.”

Steffen called the bill “pretty straightforward” adding, “It’s a very simple bill and it’s hard to believe that it’s taken us this long to establish something of this kind that’s so necessary and critical to the delivery of justice here in Wisconsin. But that’s what we’re gonna be doing here today.”

The next step after Tuesday’s public hearing will be a committee vote.

Decades in the making

The massive backlog of rape kits that piled up untested for many years and went unaddressed by then-Attorney General Brad Schimel became a thorny topic during the 2018 attorney general race between Schimel and his opponent Josh Kaul, who defeated him.

The session following the election, in 2019, bills were moving forward to implement a precise, streamlined process and a tracking database. They passed the state Senate unanimously on a voice vote and looked to be heading to the governor’s desk until politics intervened in the Assembly.

Speaker Robin Vos and Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin), who chaired the health committee where Vos chose to send the bills, refused to allow the bills to move forward in committee. Kaul held news conferences with experts and survivors of sexual assault outside Sanfelippo’s office and his local city hall calling on him to set a public hearing on the bills.

Rep. Joe Sanfelippo chairs an Assembly Health Committee public hearing on sexual assault evidence kits. (Photo by Melanie Conklin)

Then Republicans introduced changes to the bills that tossed out years of work establishing best practices by health care professionals, advocates, law enforcement and legislators from both parties — interjecting their own ideas which the medical, advocate and law enforcement experts testified against, many of which they called impractical or even counterproductive.

Despite the fact that the original bipartisan version was authored by Republicans, had the support of 72 legislators from both parties and had passed the state Senate unanimously with no controversy months earlier, after lengthy partisan feuds, the bills died  when the session ended in February 2020. Democratic efforts to force an Assembly vote on the original bills that passed in the Senate were also rebuffed.

Those painful battles were only alluded to at the hearing, amid praise and gratitude expressed over the bipartisan bills that are now moving forward.

“We’re sending a message with this legislation that we want to have a process to get it to the crime lab … in a certain amount of time. That’s the least we could do to these people that have been violated,” said Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay). “It’s amazing to me that this was never in place before. This bill has passed the Senate twice. And, I beseech you to pass this bill and move on and get past the politics of this issue.”

Rep. Tip McGuire (D-Kenosha) responded with praise for the bills’ GOP authors, Cowles and Steffen, after they gave their testimony. “I think it is incredibly important that we make sure that we have justice for the victims of this violent crime,” he said, “and so I just wanted to thank you both. This is an excellent bill and I’m looking forward to working to make sure it becomes a reality.”

Rep. Melissa Sargent
Sen. Melissa Agard

Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison), testifying in favor, said that while “sometimes it feels that we are destined to continue operating within our own parties,” these bills are an example of legislators being steered by “their better angels” and working cooperatively and deliberatively.

“These bills are examples of what is possible in the Legislature,” said Agard. “These are bipartisan pieces of legislation, not only from us, but also from attorneys general from different sides of the aisle. They’re supported by different special interest groups who are also not always on the same side of all issues.”

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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.

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