Sex assault kit bill aims to end fear of victim-blaming, prevent case backlog

MADISON, Wis. (WBAY) State legislators want new laws in Wisconsin to protect victims of sexual assault and ensure there's never another backlog of untested rape kits.

Sexual assault kit testing was one of former state attorney general Brad Schimel's big initiatives, pushing to have all untested kits submitted to a crime lab, then having the DNA of the offender entered into national DNA databases.

To date, more than 6,800 previously untested kits have been submitted, clearing up the backlog and identifying six cases so far where an offender is now facing criminal charges.

Now newly-elected Attorney General Josh Kaul is pushing to create a law giving victims more power.

"This legislation sends a clear message, which is that we can never have another backlog of untested sexual assault kits again in Wisconsin," says Kaul.

Tuesday afternoon, Kaul joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers to announce a bill that would give survivors power and create timelines on when sexual assault kits must be submitted to the state crime lab for testing.

"Under current Wisconsin law, there's no comprehensive statutory framework for the collection and processing of sexual assault kits. This legislation will change that," says Kaul.

The proposal would mandate specifics.

A sexual assault nurse examiner would have 24 hours to notify law enforcement there's a kit to be tested.

Police would then have 72 hours to collect it and 14 days to submit it to the crime lab.

"Backlogs and bureaucracy should never be barriers to justice, and sadly that has been the case as it relates to our sexual assault rape kits," says republican Representative Dave Steffen from Howard.

Several local law enforcement agencies tell Action 2 News, under their own policies, they already submit sexual assault kits to the crime lab, in general, in a matter of days.

But lawmakers want every agency, big or small, to follow the same rules.

"We all believe this will clear up that confusion to a large extent and provide better safety," says republican Senator Rob Cowles from Allouez.

The proposal also gives survivors more power in deciding when to report the assault, allowing them to have evidence collected and preserved, but remain in storage at the crime lab for up to 10 years while deciding whether to report it.

"It supports victims and their choices with their evidence," says Jamie Counsell-Baker, president of the Wisconsin chapter of the International Association of Forensic Nurses. "Victims may be afraid to seek care due to knowing the suspect or fear of victim blaming."

"This is certainly a hard conversation to have, and reporting can be one of the most challenging steps that survivors take, and they deserve to have the respect to report and be ready to have their stored kit there when they are ready to report," says democrat Rep. Melissa Sargent from Madison.

The bill is expected to be formally introduced in the legislature in the coming days.