Erin Thornley Parisi, executive director of the Rape Crisis Center, and other sexual assault victim advocates accused Assembly Republicans of playing partisan politics by failing to hold a public hearing on a bill that would fund a protocol to prevent another backlog of rape evidence kits in Wisconsin. (Photo by Jessica VanEgeren)
Erin Thornley Parisi, executive director of the Rape Crisis Center, and other sexual assault victim advocates accused Assembly Republicans of playing partisan politics by failing to hold a public hearing on a bill that would fund a protocol to prevent another backlog of rape evidence kits in Wisconsin. (Photo by Jessica VanEgeren)

Effort to prevent future backlogs now bogged down in immigration and school voucher provisions

Some topics seem to always be seen and fought through a partisan lens. In Wisconsin, private voucher schools and immigration are among them.

That’s why victims of sexual assault and their advocates are railing against Assembly Republicans for throwing those two topics into a bill that would prevent another backlog of rape evidence kits from happening again in Wisconsin.

“The majority party in this building says they are tough on crime,” said Erin Thornley Parisi, executive director of the Rape Crisis Center in Dane County about Republicans. “Well, not when the crime is rape.”

Parisi was joined by nurses, law enforcement, victim advocates and Attorney General Josh Kaul in trying to revive Assembly Bill 214, a proposal that has bipartisan sponsorship in the Assembly, and its companion, Senate Bill 200, which passed through that chamber with bipartisan support in October. 

Neither version has been taken up by the Assembly Health committee. And now, Assembly Bill 844, whose GOP authors claim is similar but does more to help victims, was introduced last week and quickly scheduled for the public hearing that was held Wednesday. 

The new bill includes a provision that would allow parents of a school-age child who is raped or sexually assaulted to automatically qualify for a voucher to a private school if they go to school with their attacker. 

Another provision would allow local police departments to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when someone suspected of being in the country illegally is accused –but not yet convicted or acquitted– of rape or sexual assault. 

Veronica Figueroa, the executive director of Unidos, a victim advocacy group for Wisconsin’s Latinx community, testified at the public hearing. She said ICE and school choice do not belong in a bill designed to streamline and fund the testing process for rape kits.

“Stop thinking deportation is the solution. It does not work. People come back,” she said. “Deportation does not stop sexual assault.”

In addition to party politics, Parisi agreed the bill is about race, calling the immigration provision a “racist aside,” intended to keep immigrant women from reporting assaults.

“The new bill sends a loud and clear message that if immigrants want justice for being raped in the state of Wisconsin, they had to get here first and they better be white,” Parisi said. 

Figueroa added that her staff works with victims in schools to help make sure they feel they are in a safe environment. Others questioned why victims should be given the option to leave and attend a private voucher school, rather than removing the perpetrator from the school.

Parisi said bills that support victims and hold perpetrators accountable are not being passed, the statewide fund for rape crisis centers is riskily low and as not been increased in decades and victim-blaming is rampant. 

“But now they are pretending to have concern for victims of sexual assault because it can help push their school voucher agenda,” Parisi said.

Given the political divide on immigration and school choice vouchers, Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, pressed co-author Rep. David Steffen, R-Green Bay, about the rationale for introducing a new bill when the original bill, AB 214, has the support of 54 of the Assembly’s 99 members. 

That support means the bill would pass if brought up for a vote. Subeck repeatedly asked Steffen who was holding up the bill. When asked if it was Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Steffen did not respond.

Steffen said 50 members of the Assembly GOP caucus need to be in favor of a bill for it to be brought to the floor for a vote. 

“We had to make some adjustments and the clock was ticking loudly. I didn’t want to go another session without getting this done,” Steffen said. “The reality is, it wasn’t happening. It was not moving. My goodness, I think we can agree this is a tremendous step forward. Is it perfect? Show me a bill that is (perfect).”

Subeck said taking up AB 844 would require the Senate to also hold a committee hearing before voting on the new bill. Given the short and shrinking legislative calendar, there is a possibility that would not happen, especially since only one senator, Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, signed on as a co-sponsor to the new bill. 

“The way I see it, you are throwing sexual assault victims under the bus to meet some partisan political goal,” Subeck said. 

In November, Kaul announced that a five-year backlog of nearly 4,500 kits had been processed and resolved. The effort to rid the state of its backlog began under former Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and continued under former Attorney General Brad Schimel. Both are Republicans. Kaul defeated Schimel in the November 2018 elections.