On Tuesday, legislators unanimously passed a historic bill that aims to protect survivors of sexual assault from being re-traumatized as they work their way through the legal system. The Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights, which primarily deals with how rape kits are treated and ensures victims are informed of their legal options, now awaits President Obama's signature.
Amanda Nguyen, founder of civil rights nonprofit Rise and a survivor of sexual assault, helped craft the legislation after she realized she'd have to file an extension request in Massachusetts to keep her own rape kit viable every six months. After the vote, she tweeted: "IT PASSED IT PASSED. 399-0. Unanimous recorded vote. The entire House. I can't believe this. All of them. For justice."
The bill, which only applies to federal cases, eliminates the cost of the invasive medical forensic exam that a victim undergoes after an assault and requires he/she be informed of the results. Additionally, a rape kit must be preserved for 20 years or the statute of limitations, whichever is shorter; when the evidence is scheduled to be destroyed, the victim must be informed 60 days beforehand and given the option to preserve the kit for longer.
Traditionally, victims have been left out of the process.
Rachel Lovell is a senior research associate with the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University. She says the Survivors' Bill of Rights is a good step toward establishing better victim cooperation, which is the number one factor contributing to the successful prosecution of a perpetrator.
"Traditionally, victims have been left out of the process," she tells Broadly. "They're seen as one aspect of [an investigation], not put at the center of it. The system made the decision of how to move things along, not the victim."
One hurdle facing sexual assault survivors that this bill can't fix, however, is the backlog of unprocessed rape kits. While it's unclear just how many there are, some reports suggest the number is well into the hundreds of thousands.
"If you're not preserving the kits and not allowing victims choice and voice in this process, then nothing else can happen from that," Lovell says. "It's the very first important step."
Aside from helping victims get justice and closure by locking away their attackers, DNA testing is cost-effective. Lovell says the cost of testing and investigating is "minuscule" compared to the tangible and intangible costs incurred by the victim. In a new report, Lovell and her colleagues analyzed rape kit data from Cuyahoga County in northeast Ohio and discovered it cost 4,347 sexual assault victims over $885.8 million. The price tag to test and investigate the kits was $9.6 million. The report also found that testing saves the community money in the long run: Getting serial rapists off the streets saved Cuyahoga County $48.2 million.
While the Survivors' Bill of Rights should help victims of sexual assault, Lovell emphasizes that there needs to be more pressure to use rape kits effectively. "You've got to test, investigate, and prosecute. The whole system needs to be in conjunction."