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Sexual assault survivors now have a basic federal bill of rights

A bill shaping a federal model for sexual assault survivors' rights passed unanimously in the Senate Monday, with hopes of inspiring states to follow suit.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Jan. 27, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/ZUMA)
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Jan. 27, 2016.

A bill shaping a federal model for sexual assault survivors' basic rights passed unanimously in the Senate Monday, with the hope of inspiring states to follow suit. 

The Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act passed as a part of the Adam Walsh Reauthorization Act, which extends funding for programs registering sex offenders. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introduced the bill in February after she met with 24-year-old Amanda Nguyen, a survivor who has faced complex policies in order to keep her rape kit intact. Nguyen, Shaheen wrote in a piece for Medium, must return to Massachusetts, the state of her assault, every six months in order to prevent her evidence from being destroyed. 

Shaheen said in stated in a release Monday that she's hopeful the bill will pass in the House of Representatives and get to President Obama's desk shortly. 

“It’s been 10 months now since Amanda Nguyen first walked into my office,” Shaheen said. “The system failed Amanda and so many other survivors of sexual assault across the country. Today, the Senate has sent a message that it’s time to change the culture around how survivors are treated in our criminal justice system."

Shaheen added in her piece that survivors often face complex policies state-by-state that fail to inform survivors about their rights to access the results of their rape kits. Some survivors, she noted, have also even been charged for the cost of the procedure. The Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act outlines that a survivor has the right to not be charged for a forensic exam, the right to be notified 60 days prior to the destruction of a rape kit and the right to have a rape kit preserved throughout a state's entire statute of limitations. 

Many survivors won't feel the impact of the bill yet as it only functions at a federal level, not at the state level, which is possibly why the bill passed in the Senate so quickly with strong bipartisan support.

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The bill will also provide a financial incentive to states that provide clear information to survivors regarding its policies on the preservation of rape kits. A work group created by the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services will also be established to follow up with efforts to continue examining the criminal justice system for survivors.     

But as the Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act has begun to quickly push through Congress, another bill seeking to universalize addressing sexual assault, specifically on college campuses, has had trouble getting floor time. The Campus Accountability and Safety Act was reintroduced in February 2015 and it currently has 35 bipartisan cosponsors. The key point of the bill is to incentivize campuses to properly address and prevent cases of sexual assault through stiffer Title IX financial penalties, biannual universal campus climate surveys about sexual assault and requiring schools to have uniform processes for disciplinary proceedings. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who has helped head the passage of CASA with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), said in a statement sent to MSNBC on May 12 that she hopes to see the momentum from the Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act encourage the passage of CASA and the Military Justice Improvement Act.

"Senator Shaheen’s Survivor Bill of Rights would be a powerful tool for sexual assault survivors who feel betrayed by the justice system, whether on their campuses, in the military, or anywhere else," Gillibrand said. "Now we should use this momentum from Senator Shaheen’s bill to keep fighting for legislation that would finally give survivors access to a fair and professional response wherever these violent crimes occur – the Campus Accountability and Safety Act for schools, and the Military Justice Improvement Act for the military. I know we will ultimately pass them, because it’s the right thing to do.” 

RELATED: BYU student says school is punishing her for reporting rape

A group of CASA's cosponsors gathered for a press conference on Capitol Hill on April 26 to remind and pressure other members of Congress to prioritize the bill's passage this year. 

Senator McCaskill said that CASA was originally going to be included in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which governs federal student aid programs, headed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. However, she noted it's been tough to get floor time and consensus on the reauthorized bill. One reason the Higher Education Act has also struggled to get floor time, some from the American Council on Education say, is due to this year's election season. The next step, McCaskill said, may be to pressure the committee to push part of the reauthorization of the higher ed bill to the floor with key parts of CASA included. 

"This is really a committee decision at this point," McCaskill said. "This is our way of saying 'we're still here, we're not going anywhere, we still want this to happen, we are still advocating that this happen, we all should not sit down and wait for next year.'"