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Bill on Sexual Assault Kits Passed Despite Losing Bipartisan Support
Bill on Sexual Assault Kits Passed Despite Losing Bipartisan Support

Washington, DC Criminal Defense Attorney Shawn Sukumar of Shawn Sukumar Attorney at Law



After the Wisconsin Department of Justice discovered nearly 6,000 untested sexual assault kits in 2014, state lawmakers introduced legislation to the state senate that was designed to prevent future backlogs of untested sexual assault kits. 


The 6,000 untested sexual assault kits were found in hospitals and law enforcement agencies throughout the state, with some dating back as far as the 1980s. In 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Justice received $4 million in federal grant funding to test these backlogged kits. The project came to be known as the Wisconsin Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, which has continued to present day as a statewide effort to address unsubmitted kits and to reduce the number of pending cases.


While the backlog was ultimately resolved, state legislators recognized that laws must be enacted so that this issue does not arise again. Under current law, there is no standard procedure for the collection and analysis of sexual assault kits, which results in kits not being submitted to state laboratory for testing. 


The Original Bill Proposal


To address the issue of untested sexual assault kits, legislation was introduced to the state senate in 2019. The legislation proposes guidelines on how to better process sexual assault kits. Under the bill, when evidence in a sexual assault kit is collected by a healthcare provider, the victim will be given the option to report their assault to law enforcement. 


If the victim chooses to report the assault, the health care provider would notify law enforcement within 24 hours of collecting the kit. Law enforcement would then have 72 hours to collect the kit from the healthcare provider, and an additional 14 days to send the kit to be tested at a state crime laboratory. The victim would also be able to anonymously track their kit, as well as have the right to have the evidence tested within 90 days.


If the victim chooses instead to not report the sexual assault to law enforcement, the healthcare provider would send the kit to a state crime laboratory for storage within 72 hours of collecting the kit. The crime laboratory would store the kit for a maximum of 10 years, or until the victim chooses to report the sexual assault and have the kit tested. The victim would also be given a 60 days’ notice before the evidence was planned to be destroyed.


A Bipartisan Effort


The bill was written by bipartisan authors Attorney General Josh Kaul, Senator Rob Cowles, and Senator Patty Schactner, and was co-authored by Representative Melissa Sargent and Representative David Steffen. 


The bill garnered support from 49 legislators from both political parties. With such support, the bill was promoted as a prominently bipartisan plan to combat backlogged kits. It was passed in the Senate unanimously with no controversy in 2019. But the legislation stalled in the Assembly because Representative Steffen, a co-author to the initial bill, introduced a new option of the bill that included more comprehensive measures. 


However, these additional measures challenged the bipartisan support that the original bill saw and threatened to lose Democratic support. While this new bill included a majority of the proposals laid out in the initial bill, it added partisan provisions that were assumed to favor the Republican party.


While the new bill maintained the same framework for handling sexual assault kits, it added new provisions on immigration and school choice that were not seen in the original legislation.


For example, one addition focused on students who were sexually assaulted by classmates or school faculty. Under these circumstances, the additions stated, students would qualify for, and have access to vouchers for the state’s private school choice program. The victims would automatically qualify for the program , regardless if they previously qualified or not. These vouchers would then allow victims to transfer schools. Supporters of this addition argue that this would allow victims to prevent further trauma and give them a fresh start without having to move to a new district. 


Yet Democrats are worried that this could send the message for students to leave their friends and familiar environment instead of requiring schools to remove the offender or address the issue at hand. As a result, opponents of this provision believe that this could create a culture of schools disregarding their responsibilities in preventing sexual assault, such as those that are defined under Title XI.


The new legislation also included provisions concerning immigration. The expanded bill would require law enforcement to notify the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement if the person arrested for committing the sexual assault is in the country illegally. 


Opponents to this provision believe that victims who were hesitant to contact law enforcement to begin with may be further deterred from reporting it, resulting in an underreporting of sexual assault. In turn, supporters of this measure state that this underreporting already exists in sexual assault cases.


Loss of Support and Moving Forward


This new version of the legislation continues to receive support from Republications, despite its critiques from the Democratic Party, who argue that there is no connection between these new issues and the original focus of backlogged sexual assault test kits. As a result, the legislation has lost the bipartisan it first received.


However, the bill ultimately passed in the Wisconsin State Assembly — with a vote of 62-36 — with the additional provisions included. Despite reservations, the passing of this new bill will hopefully work to prevent another backlog of sexual assault kits and empower victims to have some say over how their case is handled.


Washington, DC Criminal Defense Attorney Shawn Sukumar of Shawn Sukumar Attorney at Law

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