null: nullpx

Sexual Assault Survivors Must Have Access To Justice

“One could assume that these rights are already a well-established part of our criminal justice system, but unfortunately, they are not.”
Represents California’s 45th District and serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Judiciary Committees.
Stanford student Paul Harrison carries a sign in a show of solidarity for a Stanford rape victim during graduation ceremonies at Stanford University Crédito: Gabrielle Lurie/AFP/Getty Images

The injustice displayed in convictions in recent sexual assault cases has highlighted the need to improve the treatment of sexual assault survivors as their cases move through the legal system. These convictions have raised numerous, valid questions about how our justice system works for sexual assault survivors, but the fact of the matter is, our justice system is falling short long before the courtroom.

We expect that victims of any crime should have access to the tools they need to seek justice, if they so choose. We believe that our justice system should protect its citizens and deliver justice, but unfortunately for too many sexual assault survivors, this is simply not a reality. Solace, however slight, may lie in the hope that they can seek justice through the courts.

Basic rights that protect sexual assault survivors and allow them full access to justice vary greatly between each state and federal criminal justice system. This results in an uneven patchwork of laws that prevents sexual assault survivors from having full access to justice.

These brave survivors have already experienced unspeakable trauma, and they should not face unnecessary barriers to justice. Like the victims of any crime, they deserve commonsense legal protections and clear procedures that ensure access to justice.

Back in June, I introduced the Survivors’ Bill of Rights along with my colleague, Representative Zoe Lofgren. This bipartisan legislation will ensure that sexual assault survivors in federal criminal cases have a right to: a sexual assault evidence collection kit; be notified in writing before the kit is destroyed; request preservation of the kit; and be informed of important results from a forensic examination.

These rights seem so simple, so basic that one could assume that these rights are already a well-established part of our criminal justice system, but unfortunately, they are not. Unless these rights are explicitly outlined in the law, full access to justice will elude far too many sexual assault survivors.

Additionally, this legislation will establish a joint working group formed by the Attorney General and the Department of Health and Human Services to develop best practices regarding the care and treatment of sexual assault survivors and the preservation of forensic evidence. We must evaluate current practices to improve the treatment of sexual assault survivors.

I am grateful that Rise, the Rape Abuse, and Incest National Network, more commonly known as RAINN; the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence; and the National Center for Victims of Crime are supporting this legislation. I also thank the other 40 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, who are cosponsoring this legislation.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Survivors’ Bill of Rights to ensure that survivors of sexual assault have a fair chance at justice. The Senate has done its part, and now, it is my hope the President will sign these critical reforms into law.

While these reforms are essential, they are just first steps. Federal legislation can only guarantee these rights in the federal criminal system, but it is my fervent hope that states follow this example and implement similar procedures and practices. It is the only way we can repair the current, uneven patchwork of laws.

I believe the working group established by this legislation will go a long way to evaluating and suggesting recommendations to our justice system, but we must constantly evaluate the status quo and enhance the way our justice system works for the sexual assault survivors.
I am committed to ensuring that sexual assault survivors have complete, unrestricted access to justice, which for far too long has been out of their reach.

Disclaimer: We selected this Op-Ed to be published in our opinion section as a contribution to public debate. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of its author(s) and/or the organization(s) they represent and do not reflect the views or the editorial line of Univision Noticias.