Sexual-assault survivors will soon have a federal bill of rights if Barack Obama signs a piece of legislation that has already passed through both chambers of Congress. The House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill on Tuesday requiring that victims be informed of their rights and the progress of their medical forensic examinations, commonly called rape kits, in federal cases of sexual assault.
The Senate’s version of the bill also passed unanimously in May. Once a small discrepancy is resolved in conference, the legislation will go to the president.
If Obama gives it his signature, the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights will ensure that victims are offered a medical forensic examination for free (many are still charged for the procedure); that they are informed of its results; that the evidence gathered is kept for 20 years or the duration of the statute of limitations, whichever comes first; that survivors may request to be notified 60 days before the rape kit is destroyed; and that they may request to preserve the evidence for a longer period of time. The bill also establishes a working group to evaluate the efficacy of its provisions and report back in two years.
“This is a big step towards fixing an insufficient, broken patchwork that deprives victims of a fair legal process,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who introduced the bill with fellow Californian Rep. Mimi Walters, in a statement. "Today's vote to overwhelmingly pass the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act means we are much closer to ensuring victims of sexual assault have meaningful access to justice.”
The bill was developed and advocated by Rise, a nonprofit that supports survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. BuzzFeed reports that Rise’s 24-year-old founder, Amanda Nguyen, was horrified to learn that evidence from her own post-rape forensic examination, which she underwent two years ago in Massachusetts, could be destroyed after just six months unless she filed paperwork to request further preservation. She says she became embroiled in a bureaucratic maze trying to figure out how to file the request because no one ever told her how it was done. Eventually, she figured it out, but she has to go through the same process every six months to keep her kit preserved. “The system essentially makes me live my life by date of rape,” Nguyen told the Guardian earlier this year.
Unfortunately, the survivors’ bill of rights that’s on its way out of Congress will have limited impact. It only applies to federal cases—sex crimes that occur across state lines, in the military, in a federal prison or other federal insitution, in a maritime jurisdiction, or on land operated by the federal government or tribal nations. RISE is currently working with state legislatures in California, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Oregon on similar bills that would cover sexual assaults prosecuted on the state level, as most are.
But this essential legislation doesn’t address another major roadblock to justice for sexual-assault survivors: getting law enforcement workers to actually process the evidence in rape kits kept on file. The backlog of rape kits in the U.S. is staggering; some estimates place it in the hundreds of thousands. Rape kit–testing initiatives in cities around the country have proven that prompt processing can identify serial rapists and prevent them from committing further crimes. After New York City began testing every rape kit that came into police custody, the city’s rape arrest rate rose from 40 percent to 70 percent. With the help of advocates like local businesswomen and Erykah Badu, Detroit has nearly eliminated its 11,341-kit backlog from 2009, identifying 652 potential serial rapists along the way. A new analysis out this week projects that Cleveland’s effort to clear its backlog will yield nearly 1,000 new convictions; the researchers “conservatively” estimate that 25 percent of rapists go on to rape again if they’re not convicted after their first crime. If it’s processed, a rape kit from a serial rapist’s first victim won’t always yield a DNA match or evidence strong enough to keep him from raping again—but if it’s thrown away or left on a shelf in an evidence warehouse for decades, it never will.