Evidence testing is imperative to the successful analysis of any crime — especially when the offense is as serious as sexual assault. But until recently, thousands of rape kits, some of which were collected as far back as the 1980s, remained untested.
The reasons behind these delays are varied. Either the suspects were already identified, the survivor chose not to cooperate or lawyers simply felt the evidence was too weak to make a full case.
Former Attorney General Brad Schimel obtained federal grants in 2015 to test the backlog of rape kits, however, the process was not finished until October 2018. Attorney General Josh Kaul harshly criticized this oversight during the campaign, and is now in the process of proposing legislation that will specify when rape kits must be tested.
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But many fail to consider the structural issues related to evidence testing. Currently, Kaul is inviting lawmakers to tour crime labs in Milwaukee, Madison and Wausau to show the shortage of lab analysts. Gov. Tony Evers’ recent budget proposal asked for $1.9 million to create more jobs at crime labs and allow an improved pay progression for forensic analysts. Creating these jobs and raising pay is extremely important in keeping evidence testing efficient.
After receiving $4 million in grants in 2015, however, Wisconsin’s kit testing did not start until 2017. This process then took almost two years to complete, with the final kits being tested in September 2018.
While politicians and law enforcement dragged their feet at addressing this problem, many still suffered. Amber Johnson, a survivor of a 2011 sexual assault, did not find out until 2018 that her rape kit was never tested. This is because her assailant was convicted to a nine-month jail sentence without it.
When a rape kit is not tested, the DNA is not recorded or aggregated into a database, and serial rapists can continue to act without being caught. Another potential problem is that convicting rapists without the actual evidence of a rape kit could lighten suspects’ sentences, as evidenced by the mere nine month sentence of Johnson’s assailant and the countless other rapists who have served less than a year.
It is a scary thought to think that it is not only the justice system, but also politicians, those in law enforcement and countless others that are contributing to the light sentencing of convicted rapists. Furthermore, it is the job of politicians to ensure that crime labs are receiving enough funding and have enough employees to do their jobs effectively.
Delaying evidence testing is a serious disservice to the justice system and to the people of Wisconsin, especially for crimes as serious as rape. Kaul is taking a good first step to address this, but more politicians need to realize how serious the issue of delayed evidence testing is, specifically when it involves rape — a crime that many get away with as it is.
Courtney Degen ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in political science and journalism.