Republicans in the state Assembly on Tuesday bypassed a bipartisan effort to streamline the testing of evidence in sexual assault cases, instead going with a similar measure that Democrats blasted for including provisions related to immigration and school choice.
The GOP version of a bill to prevent a future backlog of sexual assault kits passed 62-36 but drew scathing criticism from Democrats, while Republican leaders defended it as more comprehensive.
“How sick do you have to be to play political games when we’re talking about the testing of rape kits?” said Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and other Republicans countered that their legislation represents a reasonable approach to sexual assault kits that incorporates additional issues the Senate didn’t consider when it approved the earlier, bipartisan plan last year.
“Rep. Hintz, his job is to be a bomb thrower and to exaggerate and create division where none should really exist,” Vos said.
The Department of Justice in 2014 first discovered the existence of nearly 7,000 untested sexual assault kits in law enforcement and hospital custody across the state. Sexual assault kits can contain evidence that is crucial to finding sexual predators or freeing the wrongly convicted. With federal grant funding, Wisconsin began testing those kits in 2016 and finished in late 2019.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, joined by Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, proposed legislation last spring that would implement standards for when sexual assault kits should be tested. Under the bill, health care professionals, law enforcement agencies and state crime laboratories, all of which are involved in the collection and processing of sexual assault kits, would be subject to new requirements. The bill got support from a number of advocates, health care and law enforcement professionals, and victims.
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After being pressured by Kaul and others to pass it, Assembly Republicans crafted a new bill that includes stricter standards for collecting and storing sexual assault kits but also allows sexual assault victims access to private school vouchers, even if they wouldn’t otherwise qualify based on their income, and requires law enforcement to notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement of immigrants in the country illegally who are under arrest for sexual assault.
Beyond creating timelines for sexual assault kit collection and storage, the bill lawmakers passed Tuesday would also require the DOJ to provide reports to the Legislature each year, allow victims to anonymously track their sexual assault kits and provide them the right to have evidence tested within 90 days and be notified 60 days before evidence is destroyed. No organizations have registered in support of the bill.
Republicans also passed a package of bills Tuesday that would strengthen criminal penalties but also comes with a risk of increasing adult and juvenile prison populations, increasing state spending by hundreds of millions of dollars.
The bills passed largely along party lines include ones to: increase penalties for intimidating a victim of domestic abuse; revoke parole, probation or extended supervision if a person commits a crime while serving his or her sentence; expand the types of juvenile crimes that can result in incarceration; and bar offenders serving time for certain violent crimes from being released on parole or extended supervision.
The bills now go to the Senate, which is likely to adjourn sometime next month, providing little time for the bills to proceed.
Democrats slammed the package for costing too much while failing to reduce recidivism in a state already struggling with a ballooning prison population and overcrowded prisons.
The Department of Corrections estimated the bill that would revoke parole, probation or extended supervision for offenders who commit further crimes would cost $55 million in the first year and $156 million in the second year and every year thereafter. The department also said the bill would lead to requiring two new state prisons to house new inmates.
Republican lawmakers downplayed those numbers, suggesting, without evidence, that the DOC may be inflating them for political reasons.
Assembly lawmakers also passed a Senate bill that would impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 18 months in prison for a fifth or sixth driving-while-intoxicated offense.