NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new U.S. law granting victims of sexual assault the right to have evidence preserved while they consider prosecution could encourage more people to press charges, experts said on Monday.
The Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act, signed on Friday by President Barack Obama, gives victims the right to have evidence preserved in "rape kits" for the maximum period during which a person can decide to pursue legal action.
Rape kits are used by police to collect evidence from the body and clothing of a victim of rape or sexual assault. DNA extracted is typically checked for matches on a DNA database of convicted criminals.
Currently, untested rape kits may eventually get destroyed as a matter of standard procedure across much of the country. The new law ensures that authorities must preserve them for the duration of the statute of limitations.
"Strengthening the response of victims can potentially mean more cases are brought forward," said Terri Poore, policy director at End Sexual Violence, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit group that works on sexual assault policy.
"It's the first federal law to my knowledge to directly address how long rape kits should be held," she said.
Only about 13 out of every 1,000 instances of rape in the United States are referred to a prosecutor, according to an analysis of government data by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), an anti-sexual violence organisation.
A contributing factor to this problem is a nationwide backlog of untested rape kits, said Michele Dauber, a law professor at Stanford University in California.
The new law sends a message that "when local law enforcement fail to test rape kits and just destroy them ... they are not taking these crimes seriously," she said.
End the Backlog, a non-profit group which lobbies for policies to expedite rape kit processing, believes there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in law enforcement facilities across the country, it said.
The law's enactment follows a campaign by Amanda Nguyen who said she was raped in the state of Massachusetts and found that her kit could be destroyed unless she requested it be preserved.
"The worst thing that happened to me wasn't the rape itself, it was having to navigate through a broken criminal justice system - in my personal case that means having to fight to hold on to my untested kit from being destroyed every six months," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The 25-year-old has not pressed charges yet because she now lives in Washington D.C. and doing so requires extensive time and resources, she said.
The new law sets a federal standard encouraging state legislators to pass similar measures, eventually ruling out situations such as that faced by Nguyen, Poore said.
Reporting by Sebastien Malo, Editing by Ros Russsell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org