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New Focus on Rape Kits and Sexual Assault Victim Rights

This month the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill to standardize the rights of sexual assault victims and improve prosecution of sex crimes. That federal legislation, introduced by New Hampshire's Senator Jeanne Shaheen, shone a light on rape kit reform throughout the country.

This week, Governor Nathan Deal signed a bill to ensure the timely testing of sexual assault evidence in Georgia, for example. Shaheen's federal bill focused on this type of evidence, and the grueling legal process for sexual assault victims trying to keep track of their rape kits in the criminal justice system. A key feature of The Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act that Shaheen introduced is a provision giving victims comprehensive information about their legal options, particularly with respect to rape kits, or forensic evidence collected after an assault.

Rape Kit Preservation

The focus of Shaheen's legislation is reportedly in large part due to the efforts of a 24-year-old aspiring astronaut who is also a State Department liaison to the White House. Amanda Nguyen learned the hard way, through personal experience, that navigating the legal system after an assault is not easy.

The new bill will give assault victims rights to the information in their rape kits, regardless of whether they choose to assist prosecutors with a case or contact police at all. Victims would have the right to know where their rape kit is located, whether it has been tested, and the test results.

Nguyen pushed for this after struggling to track and preserve her own rape kit as it wended its way around labs in Massachusetts after she was assaulted. She learned that rape kits are preserved for 15 years but only upon a victim's request for extension, and so began her difficult journey into the system. The young woman is reportedly the engine behind the bill introduced this week.

State laws vary widely and Nguyen wants to unify and standardize the righst of sexual assault victims. Some states give victims rights to counseling but won't let them access police reports about their case, while some states offer little or no protection at all. Nguyen came up with a list of about 20 rights that victims had in varying states, created an organization called Rise, and with the help of friends and supporters online began pushing for policy changes.

System Failure

"Too many survivors feel like the entire system has failed them," said Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, the bill's primary sponsor. "We need a basic set of rights for people who are sexually assaulted."

Unlike many other laws focused on sexual assault, this new legislation does not concentrate its efforts on more money for law enforcement. It is the focus on victims that makes it seem likely to receive support on both sides of the political aisle.

As for Nguyen, she says, "I could accept injustice or rewrite the law. I chose rewriting the law." Given that kind of will power, she has a good chance of reaching Mars, which is also one of Nguyen's goals.

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