Support Sexual Assault Victims

The Massachusetts state legislature should pass the proposed bill of rights for sexual assault victims.

Every two minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. One out of every six American women and three percent of American men have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. Yet most instances of sexual assault are not reported, and the vast majority of offenders do not face prosecution or prison. In short, sexual assault is an under-addressed problem of undeniable scope and gravity.

A bill currently before the Massachusetts state legislature would help combat this epidemic. The legislation, drafted in part by several Harvard students, would establish a statewide bill of rights for victims of sexual assault and make resources like counseling and rape kits more accessible across the Commonwealth.

Standing with those who have endorsed the bill, including former attorney general Martha Coakley, we wholeheartedly support this legislation. Its provisions lay out practical and much-needed reforms to combat the many inadequacies in the handling of sexual assault cases.

Rape kits, which preserve and document evidence after an assault, are chronically underused. A USA Today-led study found 70,000 untested rape kits in over 1,000 police jurisdictions nationwide, suggesting a far larger problem. This backlog reflects an unwillingness among some law enforcement agencies to prioritize sexual assault cases.

The Massachusetts bill would combat this problem by outlining procedures for tracking rape kits, giving survivors access to those procedures, and ensuring that kits are tested before they are destroyed. Among other provisions, it would also provide much-needed counseling to survivors throughout the process. In a culture where sexual assault survivors are frequently accused of making false allegations and often criticized for their actions, these are essential measures that have the potential to improve reporting and prosecution rates.

When prosecution does occur, the court system must still ensure that it devotes adequate resources to the pursuit of the justice. Unfortunately, a 2014 study by the Massachusetts Bar Association found that both public defenders and assistant district attorneys in the Commonwealth make pitifully low salaries. While these concerns are outside the scope of the legislation currently under consideration, the legislature must remember that those sexual assault cases that end in court will suffer from these funding inequities. Both accused and accuser deserve the benefit of full-throated and well-funded legal representation. When it comes to helping sexual assault survivors explore their options and begin to seek justice, however, this bill does a superb job.

Even beyond the details of the proposed law, the process that led to its drafting—involving the input of several Harvard students—is an excellent example of how activism within and outside of the academy can complement one another. We applaud the Harvard students, other activists, and lawmakers involved in drafting this legislation, and we urge Massachusetts legislators to pass it.

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