Scant action in Capitol on rape kits

By Keegan Kyle, USA Today

MADISON – In New York this year, pressure from state lawmakers is boosting the ranks of crime lab analysts to address a backlog of untested sexual assault evidence. And in Arizona, lawmakers have approved new reporting and testing mandates for police agencies.

But in Wisconsin, three years after the state first identified a mountain of untested evidence, lawmakers have stuck to the sidelines. No proposed boosts for crime labs. No policy legislation targeting the backlog.

While a handful of legislators have urged the state to expedite testing, neither Republicans nor Democrats have outlined proposals to accomplish that. The only legislative action to date has been a request for an audit, which has gone nowhere.

Wisconsin's backlog includes about 6,000 packages, known colloquially as rape kits, which contain biological samples collected after allegations of a sexual assault. The evidence can be used to help identify suspects or corroborate witness statements.

To date, Gov. Scott Walker and state legislators have left the fate of Wisconsin’s kits up to grant-funders and Attorney General Brad Schimel. In September 2015, the federal government and Manhattan prosecutors awarded Schimel’s Department of Justice $4 million in grants to study and test evidence. Federal authorities later awarded another $1.1 million to the state.

The grants followed a USA TODAY Network investigation that identified at least 70,000 untested rape kits in police storage rooms nationwide. Since the investigation, thousands more kits have been found.

Wisconsin’s response since receiving grant funding hasn’t been swift. It took about 16 months for Schimel to form a team overseeing the evidence, to complete a statewide survey of evidence stored by police agencies and to secure a private lab for testing.

As of February, nine kits had been tested in state labs. Others were being shipped to private labs. No DNA results were available yet.

The latest example of legislative criticism came Wednesday during a budget committee hearing. Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said the state hasn't done enough to inform victims about untested kits through a grant-funded publicity campaign. Schimel said $60,000 has been spent so far on the campaign and a final budget hasn't been set.

"We need to do as much as possible," Shankland told Schimel. "There are many people that are not being served right now."

Department of Justice officials over the past year have blamed the testing delays on government red tape or grant rules, or defended the pace as a cautious approach that's meant to be sensitive to victims. Wisconsin is allowing victims to decide whether to have their kits tested while other states are shipping all kits to labs. The state estimates 3,800 to 4,000 kits will be tested.

Those who wish to have their kits tested can expect more delays on the horizon. While New York approved hiring more crime analysts to help test kits faster, Wisconsin is limiting its effort to the capacity of private labs.

Up to 200 kits per month will be shipped to Bode Cellmark Labs for testing because that is all the Virginia-based company says it can handle. The rate means testing just half of Wisconsin’s total kits would take until the summer of 2018. Testing all 6,000 kits would take more than two years.

Schimel spokesman Johnny Koremenos said last week the state is testing most kits through private labs so state analysts can stay focused on handling evidence from new crimes. But that approach faces limits because there is high-demand for private labs from other states with backlogs of untested kits.

“The challenge now in testing the kits is not a money challenge, but rather a capacity challenge,” Koremenos said. “Until additional forensic analysts enter the workforce there is no amount of money that can expedite the testing of untested sexual assault kits.”

Koremenos argued against New York’s response — hiring more state-funded crime lab analysts — because hiring and training analysts would take more than a year and clearing the backlog is a “limited-time project.”

“If the hiring of additional DNA scientists would have substantially expedited the rate at which these unsubmitted kits could be tested, the Attorney General would have pursued this option,” Koremenos said.

Clearing backlogs of untested rape kits elsewhere has yielded thousands of new investigative leads. With funding from state coffers, Detroit in 2015 tested more than 11,000 kits that had been sitting on shelves. Authorities told the Detroit Free Press that the effort identified more than 2,600 suspects, including hundreds of serial rapists. At least 21 convictions were also secured.

Whether Wisconsin would have similar results is yet to be seen. But certainly the state has many unsolved rape cases. From 2006 to 2015, Wisconsin police agencies reported more than 5,500 rape cases as unsolved for FBI-defined crime statistics. About half of all rape cases logged during the period were reported as unsolved, according to a USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin analysis of the data.

Schimel didn’t ask lawmakers last year to fund rape kit testing as part of the Department of Justice’s two-year budget request and no proposal was included in Walker’s proposed state budget this year. The budget is now being reviewed by legislators before being sent back to Walker.

USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin asked Walker and the Legislature’s top four party leaders this month if they would support or oppose setting aside state funds for rape kit testing and if they are satisfied with the state’s handling of kits. One legislator responded. Walker’s office referred questions to the Department of Justice.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said that she is disappointed that Schimel hasn’t made more progress and criticized him for using state resources to defend GOP-drawn election maps, fight federal energy laws, deny access to government records and buy commemorative coins.

"I worry about the survivors of sexual assault and how these delays might affect them," said Shilling, D-La Crosse. "(Schimel) clearly has resources he could dedicate to eliminate the rape kit backlog if he chose to. It comes down to a matter of priorities."

USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin also contacted Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. John Nygren, the GOP co-chairs of the Legislature’s budget committee. They provided a joint statement highlighting sexual assault, sex trafficking and domestic violence programs that legislators funded in past budgets. None of the programs specifically targeted the state’s backlog of untested rape kits.

"We are very concerned with the number of untested sexual assault kits," the statement says. "That’s why the Legislature has made significant investments to help victims and improve the testing process."

The statement reinforced the sideline approach that lawmakers have taken to date, saying the Department of Justice “has all the tools it has asked for to ensure the accumulation of kits is properly managed."

As part of the state budget approved two years ago, lawmakers boosted a $2 million grant program for sexual assault victim services by $100,000. While grateful for that money, some advocates have said the increase signaled sexual assault victims are a low priority in the Capitol.

Erin Thornley-Parisi, executive director of the Dane County Rape Crisis Center, said at a March 21 news conference that the increase "kind of felt like a penny on the table when you leave a tip. I didn't forget the tip. You're just that unimportant."

Some advocacy groups, such as TV actress Mariska Hargitay's Joyful Heart Foundation, have pressured state and federal lawmakers in recent years to address sexual assault kit backlogs. However, the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault hasn't gone that far. A spokesman said last week that the organization would "look at" and "welcome input from the Legislature" on tapping state dollars.

It remains unclear why Wisconsin amassed such a large amount of untested sexual assault evidence, which was collected from people through an invasive procedure. Empirical findings from a new state study haven't been released yet. To date, explanations from local police and medical authorities have been largely anecdotal.

Officers have previously told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin that some evidence wasn’t tested because allegations of sexual assault were withdrawn or because testing evidence wasn’t needed to obtain a criminal conviction. The evidence was only being stored in case allegations resurfaced or for possible court appeals.