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Senator Jeanne Shaheen: #MeToo Is Not Enough. Survivors Deserve Justice in the Legal System

“Silence Breakers” are celebrated as Time magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year, #MeToo has gone viral, and countless women are courageously sharing their stories. Sexual harassment has come out of the shadows, and Americans have opened a larger conversation about sexual assault. But survivors who seek justice continue to encounter an often hostile legal system that compounds their suffering. Last year, I led the effort in Congress to pass the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act to empower survivors to be informed and fairly treated throughout the criminal justice process. The rights set forth in this new law apply only in federal cases, but I intended this to be a catalyst to jumpstart efforts by states to improve their own laws. It’s working. A growing number of states are following suit with their own codes of survivors’ rights, and I’m encouraging activists in every state to demand reform.

Two years ago, Amanda Nguyen came to my Senate office to recount her nightmarish experience pursuing justice after being sexually assaulted on her Ivy League campus. Her state gave survivors a 15-year window to pursue criminal charges but routinely discarded rape kits (the DNA evidence gathered from a forensic exam) after six months, with no requirement to inform the survivor. Amanda had to fight repeated battles to prevent her rape kit from being destroyed and persevered through a grueling criminal justice process. She went on to found the advocacy group Rise, which is working worldwide to secure justice for survivors of sexual violence.

Outraged by countless stories like Amanda’s, I introduced the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act, which President Obama signed into law on October 7, 2016. Since then, there has been a groundswell of nationwide support for the rights set forth in the new law. Using the federal-level code as a template, activists across the United States are working to enact similar survivors’ rights codes or to enhance existing protections.

In recent months, women and men have come forward to report past incidents of sexual harassment and assault, including transgressions by prominent political leaders and powerful Hollywood executives and actors. Dozens of women have accused Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein of offenses dating back as far as the 1980s. We now have a better understanding of why so many survivors choose to remain silent for so long. For survivors of assault in the workplace, they often fear retaliation that could hurt or end their careers. But many also fear being traumatized anew by a criminal justice system that often seems to blame the victim or puts unnecessary and arbitrary obstacles in their path.

These are big reasons why sexual assault is among the most under-reported and unpunished crimes nationwide. Using data from the Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey, RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the country's largest anti-sexual assault organization) found that about two out of three sexual assaults are not reported to police. Nearly four out of five sexual assaults against college-age female students are not reported. Many survivors who initially file charges become frustrated by the legal obstacle course and give up before their cases are resolved. Too often, their cases simply slip through the cracks.

Nationally, survivors’ rights have evolved rapidly in recent years. The federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004 greatly improved the treatment of all crime victims. It spelled out a list of victims’ rights in the federal criminal code, and states used this as a model for reforming their own codes of victims’ rights. Likewise, the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act spelled out survivors’ rights in federal cases and jurisdictions and is now serving as a model for reform at the state level.

In December, New Hampshire State Senator Donna Soucy introduced legislation, modeled on the new national law, to codify a list of rights to address unique issues faced by survivors in the Granite State. Legislators in other states are advancing their own bills. But until this process is complete, survivors will continue to face a daunting patchwork of laws from state to state. Without a clear, consistent set of rights articulated in the law, it’s difficult for even the most dedicated law enforcement professionals to ensure that survivors receive justice.

What’s needed is a standardized, transparent process that reassures survivors that they will be supported and protected as they pursue justice. The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act establishes fair procedures with regard to rape kits, including the right not to be charged any fees related to the forensic medical examination, the right to have sexual assault evidence preserved for the entire statute of limitations period, the right to be informed of the results of these medical exams, and the right to written notice prior to destruction of a rape kit. These and other rights set forth in the new law are basic and essential protections that all survivors ought to have, regardless of where they live.

I respect the great courage of Amanda and other survivors who choose to come forward. But something is wrong if it takes great courage for a survivor of sexual assault to win simple justice. Bear in mind, too, that violent crimes are committed not only against the victims but also against society. These crimes can instill fear and distrust within an entire community. We all have a profound interest in bringing perpetrators of sexual assault to justice.

I hope that women and men in states across America will join the movement to advance these reforms. Currently, inadequate state laws are frustrating not only to survivors but also to law enforcement officers and prosecutors. These laws and procedures serve only the perpetrators who too often remain at large.
The #MeToo movement has sparked a social revolution. It’s time, now, for a reformed legal process that ends the silence surrounding sexual assault, brings it out of the shadows, and gives survivors a fair shot at justice.