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)

Last-minute, GOP add-ons threaten bipartisan deal 30 other states have passed

Wisconsin is on track to becoming the first state in the country to fail to pass a bill that would prevent another backlog of sexual assault kits when presented with the opportunity to do so, according to a national advocate who works with states to pass such legislation. 

To date, 30 states and Washington, D.C., have done so, with nine more in the discussion phase, said Ilse Knecht, the director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, during a telephone interview Monday.

“This is unfortunately a very unique situation,” Knecht said. “We have never before run into this partisan entangling over this bill. Most of the time, it passes along bipartisan lines.”

But in Wisconsin, the opposite is set to occur when the Assembly meets to vote Tuesday on a bill that lacks the support of victims’ rights advocates, law enforcement, nurses, and past and present attorneys general from both sides of the political aisle. 

The Assembly could still pass a bill that has wide-ranging support, has passed the Senate, and is similar to what dozens of other states have passed or are now considering to pass, but Republican leadership in that chamber is moving in what many are saying is a partisan direction. 

In her role with the foundation, which is dedicated to a world free of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, Knecht has personally been involved in every effort on the state level to prevent another backlog of sexual assault kits, also known as rape kits, once the backlogs were first discovered in big cities like New York and Los Angeles two decades ago.

The new bill, opposed by Knecht and others, emerged last week after Assembly Bill 214, which has 56 bipartisan cosponsors appeared to remain stuck in committee. 

The reform bills  codify into law the timelines nurses and law enforcement have to get rape kits to one of the state’s three crimes labs. 

Specifically, if a sexual assault survivor plans to report the crime to law enforcement, the hospital has 24 hours to notify law enforcement that they have a kit to pick up. Law enforcement, in turn, has to pick up the kit within 72 hours. They then have 14 days to get the kits to one of the crime labs. 

If the survivor does not want to report the attack, the hospital has 72 hours to send the rape kit to a state crime lab for long-term storage in case the victim changes course.

Last week, the bill reemerged in a new form. Now known as Assembly Bill 844, it includes two new problematic and highly partisan topics, school choice and immigration. 

One new provision 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. 

Knecht and others who worked on the original bill said in advance of the the Assembly hearing last week that the inclusion of those provisions eliminated their support.

“For a lot of survivors it is hard enough reporting to law enforcement,” Knecht said. “Then if you think you or the perpetrator can be deported? It is putting up another barrier to women coming forward. We cannot support a bill with that poison pill in it.”

Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, questioned the bill’s author, Rep. David Steffen, R-Green Bay, during last week’s public hearing. During the back-and-forth between the two, Steffen said the Republican caucus will not bring a bill to the floor until 50 Republican members support it. 

Subeck said the original bill, AB 214, is not moving forward because Republicans do not want to give the current administration, including Attorney General Josh Kaul, a reason to claim victory for anything.

“This is the ugly side of politics,” Subeck said. “This is political game-playing at its worst.”

She said the only reason the bill was altered with school choice and immigration components added was for it to fail. 

Kaul said he would not speculate on whether politics was at play. He did say that the longer kits sit untested, the more likely it is a perpetrator can attack again.

“The reason this legislation is so important is we should never have another backlog in the state,” Kaul said. “When kits go untested it means justice is delayed for survivors.”