The criminal justice system can be a hostile place for sexual assault survivors. They face an uphill battle to be believed and have their crimes prosecuted. Worse, survivors may struggle to get their physical evidence—the rape kit collected after their assault—tested by the authorities. More than 40 states have backlogs of untested kits; sometimes police departments even throw them out.
"Survivors are often revictimized by the very system that is built to seek and protect justice," says Amanda Nguyen, the 24-year-old leader of a grassroots organization working to change this system.
Nguyen knows this situation firsthand. Her rape kit was almost destroyed in Massachusetts, where the law allows them to be discarded if no police report is filed within six months—even though the statute of limitation for rape is 15 years. In some states, she learned, kits can be destroyed after just two months. In others, they aren’t destroyed at all. It’s these patchwork and insufficient laws that her group, Rise, came together to try to change, through a unique civil rights approach.
The issue, Nguyen says, is bipartisan and common sense. Working in the halls of the U.S. Congress and state legislatures, Rise is pushing to pass a Bill of Rights for survivors in all 50 states. They cobbled together laws that already worked in various states, picked the ones that could gather universal support, and put them together. As such, the rights are basic and noncontroversial, such as fair and efficient rape kit procedures, a tracking system for the kits, a survivors’ right to a sexual assault counselor, and standard procedures to simply inform survivors of their rights.
In only about a year, Rise has already made progress. It took them four months to get bills introduced in Massachusetts. In February, three U.S. senators introduced the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act, and a similar House resolution introduced last year has 51 cosponsors, 34 Democrats and 17 Republicans. By April, Nguyen is hopeful that another 15 states will introduce the legislation.
Rise, a loosely affiliated group of about 60 volunteers spread across eight states, embodies a modern method of advocacy.
Everyone on the team, including Nguyen—who is deputy White House liaison for the U.S. State Department—has day jobs. She says they Googled their way into lawmakers’ offices, looking up email addresses online, staking out halls, and meeting with anyone in Congress—from chiefs of staffs to mere interns—who was willing to hear them out. They’ve launched an online petition and partnered with Funny or Die to make a video. To communicate, they turn to Slack and Google Docs to find volunteers who have spare time to complete specific tasks. When one senator wasn’t comfortable cosponsoring a bipartisan bill outside of their committee, within 30 minutes, the Rise team produced a well-researched memo detailing the senator’s history of doing just that.
Nguyen hopes a federal bill will pass so it can serve as a model for states. When the Crime Victims Rights Act passed in 2004, she says, many states quickly adopted their own versions.
"Truly our biggest challenge is getting the word out there. It’s because people don’t know how broken the criminal justice system is," she says. "Often change happens because there’s a window of opportunity. That window of opportunity for this issue is right now."