Attorney General, GOP Lawmaker Clash Over Sexual Assault Kit Proposal

Democratic AG Says Proposal Would Prevent Kit Backlogs, Lawmaker Says Its Unnecessary

A sexual assault kit is logged in a lab
A lab worker processes a sexual assault kit. Pat Sullivan/AP Photo

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul continued to push a Republican lawmaker on Thursday to move forward with a bill that would change how sexual assault kits are processed in Wisconsin.

The proposal, which has bipartisan support, would set deadlines for hospitals and local law enforcement for submitting sexual assault kits to the state for testing and storage.

The measure is aimed at preventing a backlog of kits, which Wisconsin has experienced in recent years.

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About 6,000 untested sexual assault kits were discovered in 2014. The backlog was eliminated about four years later. At least nine people were recently arrested after those kits were fully processed.

The bill was introduced in May and passed the Senate on a unanimous voice vote in October, but has been stalled in the Assembly, where Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, has declined to schedule it for a public hearing in the health committee.

Kaul publicly called out Sanfelippo in December, asking him to move forward with the plan.

Speaking with reporters at a WisPolitics event in Madison on Thursday, Kaul revisited his frustration with the GOP lawmaker.

“We need to move this now. It’s an outrage that this hasn’t passed — he needs to take action,” Kaul said.

Sanfelippo said Thursday he doesn’t see the urgency for moving the plan forward.

“I think everybody’s interested in finding a way to make sure the backlog doesn’t occur in the future, but is that a super huge crisis right now?” Sanfelippo said. “If the backlog still existed at this point, we would have passed something a long time ago to fix a real problem.”

Sanfelippo said he raised concerns about the bill with Kaul during a meeting last fall. Specifically, Sanfelippo said he was surprised Kaul wanted to put the procedures into law, rather than just creating policies within the Department of Justice to set guidelines.

“Usually agencies fight us whenever we try to take their procedures and put them into statute, because it makes them very inflexible,” Sanfelippo said. “I asked him why you’re coming in here and wanting me to do something that every other agency begs me not to do … and he didn’t have a good answer for it.”

Kaul told reporters Thursday he believes the policies need to be written into state law because laws have more power with non-state entities, like hospitals or local police departments, than agency rules.

“We can ask agencies to submit the kits, but this would put a clear requirement in place so that agencies that didn’t submit during that time period were in violation of that law,” he said.

Under the bill, law enforcement must collect kits from hospitals within 72 hours of being notified they exist and send the kits to the state crime lab for processing within 14 days.

The conflict between the attorney general and Sanfelippo has become increasingly personal, with Sanfelippo noting on Thursday, “he’s just pushing me to the limit now.”

The lawmaker said Kaul is making the issue political.

“All he wants to do is make it out like he’s championing this issue, so he can get credit for something he had nothing to do with,” Sanfelippo said. “His predecessor figured out a way to make his agency be able to do its job, if he can’t figure that out, then maybe he shouldn’t be attorney general, if he needs the Legislature to do his job for him.”

“All I can go back to is, is the problem fixed? The answer is yes. Did we have to take legislative action to fix the problem? The answer is no,” he added.

Meanwhile, Kaul said whether the bill advances in the Assembly will be a test of “whether the Legislature is really functioning.”

“Because we saw what happened with no standards for the submission of these kits in Wisconsin — thousands of kits went untested and there was a backlog,” Kaul said. “I’m not just going to sit on my hands while we can change the law to improve it.”