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State Senate Passes Bill To Prevent Sexual Assault Kit Backlog

Bipartisan Plan Failed In Legislature Last Year

state capitol, Laura Zimmerman WPR
Laura Zimmerman/WPR

State senators have passed a bill aimed at preventing a backlog of sexual assault kits in Wisconsin, a move that comes about a year after a similar effort failed in the Legislature.

The proposal was one of several senators passed Tuesday on a wide range of topics, from a requirement that schools teach students about the Holocaust to a new rule that could affect how judges handle child custody cases.

The bill on sexual assault kits, often called “rape kits,” is identical to the one that passed the state Senate on a voice vote a year ago only to get hung up in the Assembly, where Republicans insisted on changes.

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Under the bipartisan proposal, if a sexual assault victim wants to report their assault, a health care professional would be required to notify law enforcement within 24 hours. Law enforcement would then have two weeks to send the kit to the state crime laboratories for testing.

If the victim doesn’t want to report the assault, the collected kit must still be sent to the state crime laboratories within 72 hours for storage. The state would then securely store the sexual assault kit for 10 years, the idea being that this would give a victim time to report an assault once they’re ready.

The bill aims to prevent a repeat of what happened in 2014 when the state discovered a backlog of roughly 6,000 untested sexual assault kits. That backlog was eliminated four years later.

“When you’re the victim of a crime, your government needs to be there for you and have your back,” said state Sen. Melissa Agard, D-Madison. “Sexual assault and sexual violence is a horrific crime. And what we’re doing here today is creating a system so that people can trust their government again.”

Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, said the plan would provide certainty to sexual assault survivors if it passes the full Legislature this session.

“We certainly hope that things go better this time in the Assembly,” Cowles said.

The plan also has the backing of Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat.

“Sexual assault is a serious violent crime, and the investigation and prosecution of these cases should be a priority,” Kaul said in prepared testimony when the plan had a public hearing. “Justice should not be delayed because a sexual assault kit is not submitted — or because there is a lengthy delay before a kit is submitted — to the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratories.”

An identical bill passed the Senate last session with bipartisan support before Assembly GOP lawmakers amended it to include provisions on immigration and school choice. Because both the Senate and Assembly could never agree on an identical bill, it failed to become law.

In addition, on Tuesday, Senators passed a bill that would also require the Wisconsin Department of Justice to establish a database to give victims of sexual assault the ability to track information about any sexual assault kits they’ve provided for testing.

Mandatory Holocaust Instruction

Senators passed another bill that would require Wisconsin schools to incorporate lessons about the Holocaust and other genocides into middle and high school social studies classes.

The plan would require both public schools and private voucher schools to include lessons on the Holocaust and other genocides at least once between fifth and eighth grades and once in high school.

Wisconsin’s state superintendent of public instruction would also be required to include the Holocaust and other genocides in the state’s model academic standards.

According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, at least a dozen states have passed laws mandating Holocaust education.

A similar proposal was introduced last session but never advanced before lawmakers adjourned for the year.

“This bill will remind us that we should never forget and we should do this any other person,” said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, the measure’s sponsor.

Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, tried to amend the plan so that it would also require students to be taught about transatlantic slave trade.

“I’m just asking us to own up to slavery,” Taylor said. “I’m just asking us to own up to the horror.”

Taylor’s amendment failed along party lines after Darling told colleagues the original Holocaust bill had been in the works for two years, and she did not want to change it.

Blocking Rules On PFAS, Renters, Conversion Therapy

Republican senators also used a parliamentary tactic to potentially block a range of state administrative rules including one designed regulate PFAS in firefighting foam, another aimed at protecting renters and another that would ban conversion therapy.

Administrative rules are developed by experts at state agencies to carry out laws passed by the Legislature. When the Legislature objects to a rule, it can temporarily block it through a vote by the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules.

One way to potentially make that temporary objection more permanent is by doing what the Legislature did on Tuesday, introducing bills to permanently overturn the rules and then referring those bills to committee.

By sending the bills to committee instead of to Gov. Tony Evers’ desk for a likely veto, Republicans can continue to block the laws from taking effect.

Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said the proposals went beyond what the Legislature allowed.

“There are parameters,” Nass said. “You cannot go outside those parameters.”

Democrats said the procedural maneuver was misleading to the public who expect lawmakers to fix problems.

“We have people in this state that believe in us, and when something like this happens, we are letting them down,” said Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Mason.

Child Placement Requirement

Another proposal passed on a voice vote would require judges to explain their reasoning in some child custody case.

Under the bill, if a court grants less than 25 percent of physical placement to one parent in a custody dispute, the judge would have to explain their reasoning.

When the bill was up for a vote in committee, Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, said it would give parents clear knowledge of which placement factors they’re not meeting, so they can work to change those factors.

Two organizations that represent victims of abuse oppose the plan, including Legal Action of Wisconsin. In a memo to lawmakers, the group said it was concerned the plan could take the emphasis away from what’s best for children by signaling to courts that they should not grant less than 25 percent placement to parents unless they can justify it in writing.

Republicans Honor Rush Limbaugh

Also on Tuesday, Republican senators passed a resolution honoring conservative radio star Rush Limbaugh, who died last month after a battle with lung cancer.

The resolution came weeks after the conclusion of Black History Month, which the Legislature failed to honor through a resolution.

Sen. La Tonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, read from a long list of controversial statements Limbaugh had made during his decades as a prominent conservative broadcaster, including a skit where he referred to former President Barack Obama as “Barack, the Magic Negro.”

“You own this — you own his sentiment,” Johnson said. “His racism. His rhetoric. His voice.”

Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, who is gay, read referenced a recurring segment Limbaugh once aired during his program where he mocked people who were dying from AIDS.

“This is your hero?” Carpenter asked. “This is the person who should be commemorated?”

The resolution’s sponsor, Sen. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, said he was first exposed to Limbaugh when he read one of his books and watched his TV show as a kid. Jacque read from a 2009 Limbaugh speech Limbaugh gave in 2009 where he talked about how conservatives believe in the potential of individuals to succeed if the government gets out of the way.

“Yes, he had that larger-than-life personality,” Jacque said.

The resolution passed on a party-line vote and is scheduled to be debated in the Assembly Wednesday.