A sexual assault evidence collection kit.
A sexual assault evidence collection kit. (Photo provided by Wisconsin Department of Justice.)

The bipartisan bills will establish new guidelines to help sexual assault victims see justice sooner.

Two bills were signed into law Monday to prevent another rape kit backlog by establishing a procedure for procuring, storing, and processing the kits. The measures will also create a system that allows sexual assault survivors to track the status and progress of their kits. 

Rape kits are used to collect forensic evidence after a person is sexually assaulted, but Wisconsin’s backlog for years meant thousands of victims of sexual assault saw no meaningful justice because evidence went untested. According to End the Backlog, a national organization dedicated to fighting rape kit backlogs, Wisconsin had more than 6,800 untested kits in 2014.

“Victims and survivors of sexual assault have already gone through the unimaginable, and their path to justice should never be obstructed or delayed,” said Gov. Tony Evers in a press release after he signed the new bills. “I am proud to sign these bills today, increasing transparency and accountability in the state’s testing process for sexual assault kits to help prevent future delays in justice for victims, while empowering survivors with resources to track their kits directly.”

Both bills were authored by Republican legislators (Sen. Robert Cowles of Green Bay, Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills, and Rep. David Steffen of Green Bay) and co-sponsored by Senate Democrats, one of whom, Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) testified on behalf of the bills.

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“While it sometimes feels in this body and in this building that we’re destined to continue operating solely within our own parties. I am hopeful by what I see here today,” Agard said during a committee hearing in February. “We’re showing our colleagues and other committees and in other bodies how it is we can do better.”

The Senate unanimously passed a bill last year with similar reforms that had the support of nurses, law enforcement, sexual assault survivors, advocates, current and former state attorneys general from both parties, 56 bipartisan cosponsors in the Assembly, and Evers. But it died when Assembly GOP leadership added immigration and school choice components. 

In 2015, the year after an audit discovered Wisconsin’s backlog, the Wisconsin Department of Justice received $4 million to address the backlog, but former Attorney General Brad Schimel came under fire for the slow pace with which they were cleared. 

Attorney General Josh Kaul joined Evers and lawmakers for the signing of the bills into law on Monday. 

“I’m proud that we were able to bring folks together across the aisle to enact this important public safety legislation that will help get justice for survivors and help put violent criminals behind bars,” Kaul said in a press statement. “Thank you to the survivors, law enforcement officers, victim service providers, prosecutors, sexual assault nurse examiners, victim advocates, and many people at DOJ who committed countless hours to developing and advocating for this legislation. Wisconsin will be safer because this bill has become law.”

As of April, 4,472 kits had been tested out of the 4,475 that had been designated for testing; 2,366 were not designated for testing due to a lack of victim consent, a suspect’s acquittal, or because the kit was completed as part of an autopsy and no sexual assault was suspected. Of the kits tested, 1,712 identified DNA not belonging to the victim, and of those 571 matched a profile on the Combined DNA Index System, a federal database. 

As the Department of Justice has worked to clear the backlog, several suspects have been identified in sexual assault cases across the state. The latest was Kalvin Vaughn, 47, a Milwaukee man accused of assaulting a child under 16 in 2008. He was charged Nov. 5.