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Big victories for sexual assault survivors in Olympia

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

In the wake of the Me Too movement, sexual assault reform became one of the top priorities for state lawmakers this session, and now two bills make some of the most aggressive sexual assault reforms in years are headed to the governor’s desk.

A bill [SB 5649] eliminating the statute of limitations for child rape and other sexual assaults involving victims 16 and under, and extending them to 20 years for most sex crimes involving adult victims won final approval this week.

“Survivors of sexual violence have worked for years to change our state’s statute of limitations law, I am so proud that after years of hard work, we were finally able to get this bill passed,” said Democratic Senator Manka Dhingra, who sponsored SB 5649.

Dhingra added the bill, “Strikes a good balance of aligning how victims process trauma while holding offenders accountable.”

Republican Rep. Dan Griffey, whose wife and daughter are both sexual assault survivors, has a similar bill in the House and has been proposing this legislation for five years.

“I’ve had sexual assault survivors call me and tell me, ‘You know for years I was raped, I was molested by my step-father, by my father, by my mother, and I was encouraged to say nothing because it would bring dishonor to the family,'” Griffey recalled on the House floor.

“Why do we need to pass this bill? A lot of people ask me that all the time, why? They [sexual assault survivors] deserve it. No other survivor group does this body allow to be maligned as much as sexual assault survivors. We need to right a wrong with this policy in Washington state … and I think that it’s time,” Griffey added.

As for the senate version passing rather than his own bill?

“You know we joke over here, I joke with my Democrat colleagues – our good ideas that we work for forever and then we bring people around on then become a senator’s idea and then it passes, but it doesn’t matter on this one. On this one it doesn’t matter, it’s the policy that matters,” Griffey said before the final 94-1 vote in the House.

Democratic Rep. Sharon Santos was the lone no vote between the House and Senate.

The bill also ends the requirement for prosecutors to prove a victim actively said no to prove rape in the 3rd degree — a standard that can be extremely hard to prove because this crime usually involves date rape or victims incapacitated by alcohol or other drugs.

Mary Ellen Stone with the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center says there’s no other crime where prosecutors have to meet that high standard of proof.

“Proof that you fought back hard enough, prove that you really, really said no — very clearly and that could be substantiated by other people. It was the sort of standard that you don’t see in other crimes. It was very difficult for the criminal justice system to feel like they could meet that bar when really it doesn’t make sense given what we know about sexual assault, “Stone said.

“You’ve got the influence of the drug or alcohol and there’s also the trauma reactions where people literally do have that freeze reaction a lot of times … can’t move, can’t say anything, and that has been interpreted as consent. Clearing this language up so people don’t have to prove that they didn’t say yes is going to make it much easier for victims to come forward,” Stone added, calling the entire bill historic.

“This is the biggest thing that’s happened for victims of sexual assault easily in the last 20 years,” Stone said.

Stone says HB 1166, to help the state clear the backlog of some 10,000 untested rape kits passed by the Legislature this week, is also a major victory and sends a strong message to sexual assault survivors.

“If you are coming forward as a victim, you’ll be treated with respect and dignity and that if you provide evidence, we’re going to take care of that as quickly as we can, in a timely way and not have these backlogs, “Stone explained.

The bill mandates, for the first time, that the thousands of untested rape kits in our state, some decades old, finally be submitted for testing and that the testing be done within two years. It will also add new staff and a high-tech laboratory to dramatically reduce testing time from a year and a half to just six weeks, includes storage requirements for the kits and places a moratorium on destroying them. The bill also includes a survivor’s bill of rights, which includes things like having a sexual assault kit done at no cost and obtaining a police report for their case at no cost, which is vitally important in securing a protective order.

When the bill crossed the finish line, it was an emotional moment for rape survivor Leah Griffin, who has worked for years with the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Tina Orwall, to get legislation passed to address the backlog.

“I am thrilled. This has been years in the making and everybody came together to really push for this to happen and show survivors that our stories matter, that our trauma is valid, and that our cases should be investigated in a thorough and timely manner,” Griffin said.

“To see it passed through the Senate unanimously was absolutely incredible, Griffin added.

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