Assembly Debates Handling of Sexual Assault Evidence Kits

By Will Kenneally

February 11, 2020

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Wisconsin Assembly chamber.

Wisconsin Assembly chamber.

The state Assembly is considering a plan to address sexual assault evidence kits over the objection of the attorney general and sexual assault advocacy groups. 

The current bill contains many of the same provisions included in bipartisan legislation introduced last spring, but has drawn criticism for additions to the bill that touch on immigration and school choice. 

“These issues have not been part of any of the conversation about preventing a Sexual Assault Kit backlog to date,” the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault testified at the bill’s hearing. 

The new provisions of the bill would require local law enforcement agencies to notify federal immigration authorities if the person arrested for committing a sexual assault is “not authorized to be in the United States.” The bill also allows students to automatically qualify for a school choice program if charges are filed against another student or a district employee, and provides for notification rights for victims waiting to hear for test kit results. 

Supporters say the additions are necessary to provide compassionate care for the victims.

“These eight victim rights, as explained by the bill, will go a long way in ensuring that victims of sexual assault are treated with respect and empathy,” Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls, said. 

Opponents fear however, the additions could be harmful to survivors, saying additions like the immigration provision could create a chilling effect and cause underreporting of sexual assault. 

The bill’s proponents say that underreporting already exists. 

“Undocumented immigrants are far less likely to report crimes against themselves,” Rep. David Steffen, R-Green Bay, said. “And [the provision] is also consistent with policies, procedures and laws that exist within our existing state law [and] federal law.”

Groups like the WCASA also expressed concerns that the bill could create a culture of schools disregarding their responsibilities under Title IX to prevent sexual violence. 

“We are concerned that these provisions will unintentionally send a message to schools that lessens their responsibility as the survivor can simply switch schools,” the group said. 

The bills authors said the school choice provision was important to allow survivors of sexual assault to receive a fresh start without having to change addresses. 

Both the legislation introduced last year and this new bill outline similar framework for handling sexual assault evidence kits. Under both bills, health care professionals must send evidence kits to either law enforcement or state crime labs within a matter of days. Advocates on all sides say this standardization is important to prevent another backlog of evidence kits. 

“Wisconsin has already had a backlog of untested sexual assault kits. We know it can happen,” Attorney General Josh Kaul said. 

The Assembly will vote on the bill Tuesday, but it is unclear whether similar legislation will pass the Senate before the legislature adjourns for the year. 

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