Image by Kanan Shah/ COURIER
Image by Kanan Shah/ COURIER

The Survivors’ Bill of Rights in the States Act offers an incentive for states to ensure survivors have a voice.

Three years ago, Congress unanimously approved a historic bill that guarantees sexual assault victims certain protections, including the preservation of their rape kits. The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights, which only applies to federal cases, was signed by President Obama in 2016. 

Twenty-one states have since adopted similar laws to ensure sexual assault forensic evidence is tested in a timely manner, and that these kits are preserved. Advocates say such measures help protect survivors from being retraumatized later.

On Tuesday, several lawmakers announced plans to introduce a new bipartisan bill to incentivize more states to protect survivors’ rights. 

Sponsored by Reps. Jackie Speier (D-CA), Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), alongside Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), the Survivors’ Bill of Rights in the States Act encourages states to offer—at a minimum—the rights guaranteed to survivors under federal law.

Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California. (Shutterstock)

Current federal protections include, among other things, receiving (if they choose) a sexual assault forensic exam free of charge and being informed of its results; the preservation of that evidence for 20 years or for the maximum applicable statute of limitations; and a 60-day notice that their rape kit will be destroyed with the option to preserve that evidence for longer with a written request. 

“In their pursuit of justice, the last thing sexual assault survivors need is uncertainty about the preservation of evidence,” bill co-sponsor Iowa Sen. Grassley said in a press release emailed Tuesday. “Forensics kits are essential to delivering justice and holding perpetrators accountable. This bipartisan legislation encourages states to apply the same standards across the country.”

Under the proposed legislation, states that ensure survivors have a say in how their rape kits are stored would be eligible to receive additional funding from the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) grant. VAWA is a collection of federal laws and programs that aim to end violence, but it has yet to be reauthorized by Congress after expiring in February.

“It is so important for states to pass strong laws to protect the rights of survivors of sexual assault, and we think it’s a great approach to incentivize states with funds they can use to address the needs of survivors,” said Terri Poore, National Alliance to End Sexual Violence policy director, in a statement. 

Currently, Wisconsin lawmakers are considering their own sexual assault survivors’ bill of rights. If approved, Assembly Bill 352 would guarantee the storing of sexual assault forensic examination results for 50 years or until their assailant’s prison term has ended, among other protections.

In October, victim advocate Colleen Zolper testified in a Wisconsin Assembly committee about her experience supporting a 19-year-old rape victim who had to speak with police while in a hospital gown.

“I sat with her as an armed, well-statured police officer took statements while she laid in her bed, exposed and vulnerable in her hospital gown, with only a blanket for cover,” Zolper said, according to Wisconsin Public Radio, adding that sexual assault is “nothing short of a public health crisis.”

Zolper works with national advocacy organization Rise, which has spearheaded the work to ensure survivors all over the country are empowered with civil rights.

“And until we enact legislation to ensure survivors are treated with a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach, we’re not likely to see a shift.”