Kaul sexual assault kit tracking

A law intended to prevent a backlog of sexual assault evidence kits from building up again in Wisconsin will take effect on Friday, after years of bipartisan work leading up to its passage, Attorney General Josh Kaul announced this week.

A law intended to prevent a backlog of sexual assault evidence kits from building up again in Wisconsin takes effect on Friday, after years of bipartisan work leading up to its passage.

The law establishes procedures for the collection and processing of sexual assault evidence kits — also referred to as rape kits — and requires law enforcement agencies to provide the state Department of Justice with more data on them than previously required. Prior to this law, no such standards existed at the state level.

“This puts power back in the hands of survivors to hold the justice system accountable for responsible treatment of the evidence taken from their bodies. This means awareness of future backlogs and it means more thorough sexual assault investigations,” said Susan Alan-Lee, forensic nurse examiner program coordinator at UnityPoint Health-Meriter in Madison, during a news conference.

Madison was among several cities that participated in a six-month pilot of the tracking program.

The role of law enforcement in an investigation “is to ensure safety, minimize additional trauma, be there for support and ensure the victim has a choice in this process,” Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett told reporters.

The law allows those priorities to be “at the forefront of each and every one of our sexual assault investigations moving forward,” Barrett said.

The tracking program is “a great first step,” said Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes, adding that the department is committed to pursuing more ways to support sexual assault victims. 

“Sexual assault is a massively underreported crime right now, and the more that we can do to make clear to survivors that we stand with them and the process is really one that empowers survivors, the more that I think we're going to see those reporting rates increase, and the more sexual assaults we’re going to end up solving,” said Attorney General Josh Kaul.

Under the law, if a victim of sexual assault wants to report the assault to law enforcement, the health care professional collecting the kit must notify a law enforcement agency within 24 hours. If the victim does not want to report the assault, the health care worker must send the kit to the state crime laboratories within 72 hours for storage.

Once a law enforcement agency is notified about the collection of a kit, it must take possession of it within 24 hours, and send it to the state crime laboratories for processing within 14 days. If a victim changes their mind and does not want the kit tested, it must be sent to the laboratories for storage.

After a kit is processed, the law enforcement agency is required to store it "for a period of 50 years, or until the date of the expiration of the statute of limitations, or until the end of a term of imprisonment or probation of a person convicted in the sexual assault case, whichever is longer." Unprocessed kits must be stored for 10 years.

“Our patients put a lot of trust in us to allow for swabs of their intimate body parts on one of the worst days of their lives. It would be much easier for a patient to only worry about their own mental and physical health during this time and not spend their limited energy allowing someone to swab their body, but many choose to go through this process for the sake of justice,” Alan-Lee said. “Our patients emphasize they want evidence collected to prevent someone else from being assaulted by the same person. Patients who are reporting the assault to police expect their kit will be tested in a timely manner — something that hasn't always happened. What happens to the swabs in that kit is extremely important to survivors of sexual assault.”

The law works in tandem with another, passed at the same time, which required the state Department of Justice to create a database known as the Wisconsin Sexual Assault Kit Tracking System to allow victims to access information about the status of any kits they have provided. 

It allows health care workers, law enforcement professionals and forensic laboratories to update and track a kit's location.

The system, known as Track-Kit, launched last month.

The two laws were initially developed by legislators working with Republican former Attorney General Brad Schimel. Kaul, a Democrat, continued the work after taking office in 2019.

Kaul made the backlog — which dated back to at least 2014 — a key criticism in his 2018 campaign against Schimel, arguing Schimel had not done enough to address it. Kaul is seeking reelection this year.

Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison, called the pair of laws a “game-changer for victims’ rights," and praised the bipartisan work that led to the bills being passed and signed into law.

“While I know that there's not one piece of legislation … that is ever going to erase the trauma of sexual violence, we need to know that there are ways that we can remove these barriers to justice — and that's what we're doing here today,” Agard said.

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