For Sexual Assault Survivors in the U.S., Justice Depends on Geography

A new federal bill aims to reform the haphazard justice system for rape victims with a unified “bill of rights.”

Image AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

For many survivors of rape and sexual assault in the U.S., the odds against getting justice can often be stacked so high that only about a third report the crime. It’s not hard to understand why more don’t come forward or file charges. Those who do face the possibility of being silenced, dismissed as liars, or blamed for the crime.

The way sexual assault survivors are so often treated stems partly from systemic failures in the U.S. criminal justice system. All victims of sexual assault bear the burden of proof. And yet procedures around the country, which can vary a great deal depending on location, can make it difficult for them to secure and preserve the most crucial piece of evidence: a rape kit.

New legislation, introduced in the U.S. Senate last week, aims to change that. The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act essentially codifies best practices ensuring that survivors have knowledge and access to the evidence collected from their bodies. Here’s Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who introduced the bill, via a press release:

“We have to do better. Our goal with this legislation is to change the culture around how sexual assault survivors are treated in our criminal justice system. We have to create an environment where survivors feel like the system is working for them, not against.“

Different states have different guidelines

The legislation was the direct result of the personal experience of Amanda Nguyen, a 24-year-old State Department liaison to the White House, an astronaut-in-training, and the founder of RISE, a non-profit dedicated to improving legal outcomes for rape victims. Nguyen says she faced a “labyrinth” of complications while navigating the criminal justice system in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after she was assaulted in 2013. In the immediate aftermath of her rape, she went to get what’s known as a rape kit, an hours-long procedure in which medical experts gather crucial physical evidence from the victim’s body, as well as provide life-saving medical care.

She says she read in one of the pamphlets she was handed afterward that Massachusetts only held on to rape kits for six months. Untested forensic evidence could be destroyed after that period even if the statute of limitations to bring charges against the accused, which is 15 years in Massachusetts, hadn’t expired. So Nguyen, who has chosen not to start legal proceedings yet, fights to keep her untested rape kit from being trashed every six months.

Had her assault taken place in another state, a completely different set of protocols would have been in place. “What this means is that justice is dependent on geography,” Nguyen says. “Two different survivors in two different states have two completely different sets of rights—and that's against the core American principle of equality under the law."

Full disclosure: Nguyen and I briefly lived in the same group house in Washington, D.C., in 2014.

Nationwide, around 400,000 rape kits sit untested. The interactive map below, created by ENDTHEBACKLOG, a campaign to bring attention to this issue, shows the number of untested kits in each state (if they’re counted), and whether the state has proposed or passed legislation to help clear the backlog:

Here’s a snapshot of Arizona, for example, where many police departments have just started to process piled-up rape kits:

Rape kit rules are just one part of the problem

Following a string of investigative reports about this immense backlog, Vice President Joe Biden announced millions of dollars in grants to help police departments in 42 jurisdictions in 20 states last year. But untested kits are only one part of the problem.

In many states, victims still have to pay pay for their rape kits. And in some police departments, untested rape kits are routinely destroyed—often in violation of set protocols, and sometimes for reasons such as “to make room for evidence.” The statute of limitation on filing a rape charge ranges from three to 30 years depending on where you live, according to Mother Jones. In short, a haphazard set of rights currently exists for the estimated 25 million survivors of sexual assault in the U.S.

Nguyen started drafting a bill of rights for survivors with the help of supporters, and pushed to get it introduced in the Massachusetts state legislature in early 2015. Her organization, RISE, has similar bills pending in states such as California, Oregon, New York, and in addition to the Senate bill there’s a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives, too. (Oregon’s senate passed their version of the law last week.)

“Survivors are often re-victimized by the very system that’s meant to protect and deliver justice,” Nguyen said. “I could accept the injustice or re-write the law—I chose to rewrite the law.”

“Common sense” best practices

The bill of rights contains what Nguyen calls “common sense” practices. For example, it asks that victims be notified 60 days before a kit is destroyed, get the right to extend the time-period for which their kits are preserved, and be informed of important results from when the kit is tested.

It’s pretty basic stuff that everyone can get behind, she says. The new act is inspired by previous federal laws like the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, which list the rights entitled to victims of federal crimes. The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act extends that framework to include the specific needs of sexual assault survivors, and acts as “the first step to having uniform basic rights for survivors across the country,” Shaheen’s press release says.

"The rights are drawn from best practices across the states that are least controversial, that do not infringe upon the rights of the accused, that help law enforcement officers, and that are backed by the law enforcement community,” says Nguyen.

So far there are encouraging signs of support. The House resolution got 51 bipartisan sponsors, and a Change.org petition has already received thousands of signatures. Still, Nguyen is out there, spreading the word about a problem thousands of survivors face—and the small, preliminary solution she and her colleagues have suggested.

“The biggest obstacle is getting people to know that this is an issue. Anyone who looks at this, the reaction is, ‘How is this still a thing? How is this happening?’” she says. “I honestly believe that people care. Rape is a very complex problem, but with this bill, we have a first-step solution.”

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.