National outrage over the handling of recent high-profile sexual assault cases have spurred universities into action as leaders have looked for ways to transform how sexual assault survivors are treated.
If society is going to get serious about changing the way we treat these terrible crimes, it will take more than our universities acting. It will require everyone, at all levels of society and government to get involved.
In 2003, California became the first state in the nation to pass a Sexual Assault Victims’ DNA Bill of Rights, which, among other things, reduced the rape kit testing timeline and ensured survivors a right to know whether their kit had been tested and if a DNA match had been found.
Yet, throughout the nation, many states fail to provide even these basic fundamental protections to sexual assault survivors.
Under current law, basic rights that protect sexual assault survivors, and the extent to which they can attain justice, vary greatly between each state.
Unfortunately, the discrepancy between the state and federal criminal justice systems is even more pronounced.
Only six states – Illinois, Texas, Colorado, California, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio – require law enforcement to test rape kits. Sadly, this leads to mind-boggling statistics like the fact that as many as 400,000 untested rape kits currently sit in evidence rooms.
Sexual assault survivors deserve far better.
Most state law enforcement agencies do not have written guidelines or procedures for processing sex-crime evidence. These decisions are often left to the discretion of investigating officers, causing dramatic inconsistencies in how evidence is handled in cases that could help bring some of these perpetrators to justice.
Perhaps most shockingly, in every state – California included – police are legally allowed to destroy a rape kit before the statute of limitations expires.
The bipartisan Survivors' Bill of Rights, which we introduced and cosponsored, respectively, is designed to dramatically overhaul the way the federal criminal justice system treats sexual assault cases and provides a model for states to follow.
It ensures that sexual assault survivors in federal criminal cases have a right to a sexual assault evidence collection kit. It also requires that survivors be notified in writing before the kit is destroyed and allows them to request preservation of the kit and be informed of any results from a forensic examination.
These rights seem so simple that it is inexplicable how they are not already a well-established part of our federal criminal justice system.
The bill also goes one step further by requiring the Attorney General and the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a set of best practices so we can ensure all law enforcement, from local police to federal investigators, have recommendations and strategies to ensure the evidence from these crimes is preserved and sexual assault survivors are treated with the dignity and care they deserve.
The bill we have put forward will ensure these rights are explicitly outlined in federal law, guaranteeing full access to the justice that seems to have evaded far too many sexual assault survivors.
Just last week, the House of Representatives unanimously approved the Survivors’ Bill of Rights to make necessary reforms to the federal criminal justice system. The Senate has already passed these vital reforms, and now, it is our hope the President will sign these reforms into law expeditiously.
Even so, these changes in law will not fix all of the flaws in our justice system. There is no doubt we still have a long way to go, but we believe the Survivors’ Bill of Rights will establish a foundation upon which we can build to ensure justice is never out of grasp for anyone.