GOP introduces new sex assault kit bill; AG Kaul calls it charade

MADISON — Assembly Republicans introduced a bill Friday to prevent a backlog of untested sexual assault kits, signaling the party has abandoned two previous proposals championed by Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.

The move all but ensures the Legislature will accomplish nothing on the issue before its two-year session ends in March, depriving Kaul of a major political victory. The attorney general made testing the kits a major campaign issue in 2018. He called the new bill a “charade.”

“The legislation circulated today is transparently intended to allow Assembly Republicans to pretend to support legislation that can help prevent another backlog, when in reality they are preventing such legislation ... from becoming law,” Kaul said.

Tens of thousands of sexual assault evidence kits have gone untested in the United States for a variety of reasons. Prosecutors may have decided some cases were too weak to pursue or dropped cases because victims wouldn't cooperate.

Victim advocates have been pushing for years to get the kits tested in hopes of identifying serial offenders. Kaul’s predecessor, Republican Brad Schimel, starting testing around 4,000 kits in Wisconsin in 2017.

Kaul accused Schimel of taking too long to finish the job during the campaign. Schimel announced before the election that he had finished testing about 4,100 kits but Kaul still beat him that November. Late last year, Kaul announced testing was complete on the last 300 or so kits. The project had generated charges in 35 cases as of last August.

Republican state Rep. David Steffen of Green Bay introduced a bill in May that would create new kit-testing protocols.

Under that bill, if a victim wants to report an assault to police, nurses must notify officers within a day of collecting the kit. Police would then have two weeks to send the kit to the state crime lab. If the victim doesn't want to report the incident, the kit would still go to the lab within 72 hours. The lab would store those kits for a decade.

Steffen also signed onto another bill that would require the Department of Justice to create a database for tracking kit submissions.

Both bills have bipartisan support. The Republican-controlled Senate passed them overwhelmingly in October.

But the proposals ran into a roadblock in the state Assembly. Republican Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, chairman of the Assembly health committee, refused to hold a hearing on the measures. Last week he told reporters he didn’t see any “hair-on-fire emergency” to get the bills passed.

Steffen stepped back into the fray Friday with a substitute bill. It largely mirrors the kit submission protocols and tracking requirements laid out in the original bills but goes further, creating a sexual assault victim bill of rights and mandating police notify immigration officials of anyone arrested or convicted of sexual assault.

It also would allow students who have been sexually assaulted by another student or teacher to enter the state’s school choice programs regardless of eligibility. The programs offer students state subsidies to offset private school tuition. They’re a sticking point with Democrats, who argue that money could go to public schools.

Steffen didn’t immediately return a message Friday. Sanfelippo said in a telephone interview that the new bill is much better than the proposals Kaul was pushing. He promised to hold a hearing on the bill next week.

“There’s no reason anybody should be against this bill if they truly want to protect sexual assault victims and make sure a backlog never happens again.”

The bill still faces a long road after the public hearing. The health committee will have to schedule a vote and the bill would have to clear a full floor session to get out of the Assembly. The process is the same in the Senate. All that would have to happen before the end of March.

Sanfelippo insisted there’s plenty of time and took another jab at Kaul.

“The attorney general’s been sounding the alerts, but he spent most of his adult life outside the state of Wisconsin and he doesn’t know how we work here,” he said.

Kaul grew up in Fond du Lac. He attended Yale and Stanford and worked in the U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore before moving back to Wisconsin in 2014.