January 10, 2020

Advocating for Survivors of Sexual Assault

The backlog of thousands of untested sexual assault evidence collection kits routinely lead news coverage for years. With bipartisan progress in the state Department of Justice (DOJ) and new legislation I’ve authored to prevent future backlogs, Wisconsin has turned this narrative around and is ensuring that we treat these crimes with the seriousness they deserve.

With thousands of untested kits and countless unanswered questions, former Attorney General Brad Schimel worked to secure federal funding to begin clearing this backlog. Less than one month ago, DOJ announced that the backlog of sexual assault kits has finally been cleared.

The efforts made in bipartisan fashion by former Attorney General Brad Schimel and now current Attorney General Josh Kaul has meant that long overdue justice is now being delivered to some survivors of sexual assault. Earlier this year, the first prosecution from a backlogged sexual assault kit happened close-to-home in Waupaca County when Leroy Whittenberger was sentenced to 25 years in prison, followed by 15 years under state extended supervision.

Whittenberger received the due process any accused deserves, and a jury unanimously found him guilty of three counts of second-degree sexual assault. The assault was of a teen in New London in July of 2012, but because the kit was backlogged, this teen had to wait seven years to see justice. Whittenberger was what DOJ called a “serial sexual offender,” having had three previous sexual assault convictions in Lincoln and Marathon Counties.

While the kit testing delay cannot be forgotten, these prosecutions are a step in the right direction for those who will be given justice. But with the recent clearing of the backlog and with some charges filed against alleged perpetrators of these crimes, it’s time to begin looking forward to prevent another backlog like this from happening again.

That’s why I worked to come up with a set of statutory timelines and protocols for nurses and members of law enforcement to prevent a future backlog of sexual assault kits, ensure a proper chain of evidence and the preservation of these kits throughout the statute of limitations, and most importantly, helps to provide options, certainty, and justice to sexual assault survivors.

Sexual assault is an issue that impacts families and community members throughout the state, and sexual assault is also a notoriously underreported crime. Providing clarity and certainty to survivors with evidence collected from a sexual assault may help lead to more survivors seeking justice and may further lead to more successful investigations and prosecutions.

Senate Bill 200 and Assembly Bill 214 is supported by groups representing law enforcement, health care professionals, sexual assault survivor advocates, and the state Department of Justice under former AG Schimel and current AG Kaul.

During a press conference announcing the unveiling of 2019 Senate Bill 200 and Assembly Bill 214, my co-author, Representative David Steffen (R-Green Bay) said “justice delayed is justice denied.” That concise sentiment matched by sound policy has resonated with many of our colleagues, leading to over 60 co-sponsors of this legislation and a voice vote of approval by the State Senate.

But this effort isn’t just about providing justice; it’s about respect for the survivors of sexual assault. It’s about the assurances that their story will be taken seriously, and it’s about providing options to preserve and ensure the validity of any evidence from the crime, but to provide them with the option to come forward when they’re ready.

I believe this is a common-sense step that we owe to the survivors of sexual assault to ensure that evidence is handled properly so they can have one less thing on their mind as they deal with the trauma they endured. I’m proud to be working on this important legislation, and I hope to see this progress and be signed into law before the 2019-2020 Legislative Session adjourns.