In Wisconsin, a survivor of sexual assault receiving medical attention is offered a rape kit. If they chose to report the assault to the police, the rape kit goes to the cops to be used in their investigation. If they choose not to report, the kit is held in storage for 10 years.
Wisconsin’s top lawyer, Attorney General Josh Kaul, announced late last month that a years-long backlog of just over 4,000 sexual assault kits designated for testing had finally been analyzed by the state crime lab.
At the same time, Kaul announced a nearly two million dollar grant for Wisconsin to continue the investigation and prosecution of cases stemming from these kits, and to fund a statewide system to track kits.
Before 2012, there was no statewide protocol for collecting and processing rape kits, when the then attorney general J.B. Van Hollen established a coalition of policymakers, law enforcement, and health professionals. That coalition, the Sexual Assault Response Team, or SART, initiated a project to clear Wisconsin’s backlog of rape kits.
A bill in the state legislature would put the protocols established by the sexual assault response team into state law. While it was passed unanimously in the state senate this summer, the bill is still waiting in the assembly.
In a press conference yesterday, Kaul urged the Assembly Committee on Health, to hold a public hearing.
“This legislation has earned broad, bipartisan support. It has seventy-one legislative co-sponsors. That includes a majority of the members of the State Assembly,” Kaul said. “Fifty-five members of the State Assembly support this legislation, and that’s why we are hear today, calling on Representative Joe Sanfelippo to schedule a public hearing on this issue.”
Ian Henderson is the legal director of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a nonprofit advocacy group.
He says the bill would codify the protocols put in place by SART and ensure clearer timetables for how law enforcement handles the kits.
“We believe, and many others do as well, believe that that legislation is critical to ensure we don’t have a problem with a backlog of untested kits,” Henderson says.
Under the new bill, if a patient wants evidence collected but doesn’t want to report the assault, the health care provider would be required to send the kit to the state crime lab for storage. It would be stored for 10 years or until the survivor decides to report the assault.
If a victim wants to report a crime right away, the new law would require the health care professional to notify law enforcement within 24 hours after collecting the rape kit. The police would then have 3 days to pick up the kit and 14 days to send it to the crime lab.
Henderson says that the quick processing of evidence is necessary for survivors to heal.
“For survivors who go through this lengthy, invasive examination, the system owes it to them to test those kits,” Henderson says. “For those survivors who want a kit collected and want to report, as a criminal justice system we need to do our job by making sure those kits are tested.”
A second bill waiting in the assembly that would give survivors the ability to check the progress of their kits. Henderson calls this a companion bill.
“Survivors would get information. Information is power, knowledge is power, and so restoring some of that is definitely part of a trauma-informed response,” Henderson notes.
Ilse Knecht is the Director of Policy and Advocacy of Joyful Heart Foundation, a national organization that works to eliminate sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. She says that Wisconsin lags behind the rest of the nation. So far 30 states and D.C. have passed laws to ensure the timely processing of rape kits.
Knecht says that the culture around sexual assault means that the investigation is often over before it begins and that’s what leads to backlogs.
“Backlogs happen because sexual assault is not prioritized as the violent crime that it is,” Knecht asserts. “And so this means that all across the criminal justice process, it is often a neglected crime area, which means that crime labs are underfunded, sex crimes units across the country are underfunded and understaffed, [and] there are very often no policies or procedures related to what to do with rape kits.”
Knecht says that a uniform statewide system for processing the kits essential to prevent another backlog.
“A decision that’s [as] important [as] whether or not to test evidence from a rape case should never be left up to one person,” Knecht says. “So, without policies and procedures relating to rape kits, that’s what happens. And you want those policies and procedures to be statewide because you don’t want one survivor living in one zip-code and another survivor living in another zip-code to have different access to rights [and] to have their kits tested.”
Earlier this week, Leroy Whittenberger of Waupaca was convicted and sentenced for a 2012 sexual assault. It’s the first conviction and sentence to result from the backlog of rape kits.