On Thursday, Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, D.C., introduced new legislation intended to expand the rights of people who have been sexually assaulted, particularly juveniles. The Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Amendment Act of 2017, which amends the Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Act of 2014, also expands the definition of the actions that constitute a crime and clarifies who can be defined as a victim, including children as young as 12 years of age.
Introduced during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the legislation clarifies the right of a victim to compensation under existing insurance policies as well as the rights of victims when being provided emergency care.
“Through this legislation, we can ensure that every victim of sexual assault — no matter their background — is treated with fairness and dignity,” said Mayor Bowser.
The bill also provides children who have been assaulted with trained advocates. Currently, only adults are offered this necessary help with their trials and police investigations.
“I think this bill will contribute to more victims and survivors accessing help,” Michelle Garcia, director of the D.C. Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants told WaPo. “We know that when victims feel supported, they are more likely to engage with and stay engaged with the criminal justice system…. I think it will have a big impact in a number of ways.”
The Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Act of 2014 granted specific rights to survivors of sexual assault and defined a continuum of services for survivors of sexual assault. It also required the creation of a task force to study recognized best practices nationwide and to develop recommendations to enhance the city’s response to sexual assault.“
SAVRAA was passed by the D.C. Council in 2014 following a scathing 2013 Human Rights Watch report that revealed mishandling of numerous sexual assault cases by the Metropolitan Police Department. Although that report was flawed in some respects, according to an independent review commissioned by the Council, officials conceded that “in some cases, the investigation was admittedly inadequate.”
The newly proposed 2017 amendment to the 2014 law was primarily influenced by the recommendations of this task force, which strongly considered the bungled 2008 case of Danielle Hicks-Best—a young girl who, after telling police that she had been raped, was ultimately charged with lying to police. She was only 11 years old at the time.
Despite hospital reports detailing Hicks-Best’s injuries, she was the only one arrested in connection with the case. In 2014, police opened a new investigation into her rape.
“Anyone in the District of Columbia should feel confident that if they experience a sexual assault, they will be treated with compassion and respect when they come to MPD for help, and MPD will support them as their case proceeds through the criminal justice system,” said Acting Chief of Police Peter Newsham.
According to NBC Washington 4, the bill would also make it a crime—for the first time ever—to remove someone’s clothes without consent and would require prosecutors to provide their reasons for declining to pursue specific sexual assault cases.
Mayor Bowser told reporters that she had wanted to introduce the bill earlier this year but waited until now “to get law enforcement on board to advance this bill.” Acting Chief Newsham, her nominee for the position, stood by her at Thursday’s press conference.
– Danielle Bizzarro