In a victory for sexual assault survivors, the $168.3 billion state budget agreement will extend the length of time rape kits are stored in New York.
The final 2018-19 state budget will require rape kits to be stored for a minimum of 20 years. The current standard is 30 days, which has been problematic for sexual assault survivors. Advocates have said the 30-day retention period doesn't give survivors enough time to push for the prosecution of their attacker.
One of the advocates who pressed the state to extend the evidence storage time frame to 20 years was Amanda Nguyen, who founded Rise, an organization that advocates for sexual assault survivors' civil rights.
Nguyen, a sexual assault survivor, said her group heard stories from New York victims who had their rape kits destroyed. The federal standard is 20 years for rape kit storage. Nguyen helped draft the legislation Congress passed and then-President Barack Obama signed in 2016 to allow for a longer storage period.
"Even if it is moved to five years, it's still substantially less than the rest of the nation which means that a New York survivor who is raped will still have less civil rights than his or her counterparts in the rest of the United States of America," Nguyen told The Citizen in January.
There was a separate proposal from bipartisan members of the state Legislature to store rape kits for 20 years. The legislation was sponsored by Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, a Democrat, and state Sen. Kemp Hannon, a Republican who chairs the Senate Health Committee.
The bipartisan support clearly had an impact. Cuomo and legislative leaders made the 20-year minimum for retaining sexual assault evidence a priority in the budget.
Under the new law, rape kits will be stored 20 years from the date of collection. This will include clothing, cotton swabs, slides and other relevant items, which will be identified with a code matching the survivor's medical records.
Before the 20-year storage period expires, a survivor must be notified at least 90 days in advance that the evidence will be discarded. Survivors may request their clothing and other personal items at any time, according to the new law. And they must be given an opportunity to provide contact information so they can be notified of the planned destruction of the rape kits.
Other provisions linked to the 20-year storage requirement also address another important question: Where will the rape kits be stored? One of the challenges facing hospitals, if they were to store the rape kits for two decades or more, is space. The state budget addresses that concern by outlining a plan for designating a facility, or multiple facilities, for storing the evidence.
Beginning this year, the state Department of Health, the state Office of Victim Services, the Department of Criminal Justice Services and the state police will study and issue recommendations for retaining sexual assault evidence. The agencies will study options for using facilities owned by state or local governments or the possibility of using privately-run sites.
By December 2019, the agencies must submit a plan to the state budget director and legislative leaders that recommends at least one storage location for rape kits and a schedule for transferring the kits from hospitals to the designated site by April 1, 2021.
Hospitals will be expected to store the rape kits until April 1, 2021 unless other facilities are designated before that date, according to the budget text. When the rape kits are transferred from the hospital to the new storage location, sexual assault survivors must be notified of the move.
Beginning after April 1, 2021, hospitals must transfer the sexual assault evidence to the new storage facilities within 10 days of collection.
The rape kits may be removed from storage only if law enforcement requests the evidence or if a survivor grants permission to release the kits to police. The survivors have the authority to direct the storage facility to dispose of the rape kits before the 20-year period expires.
Speaking at a press conference Friday, Cuomo said the longer time frame for storing rape kits will help prosecute the attackers.
"We know that DNA is now the fingerprint for many crimes," he said. "We haven't been keeping rape kits long enough to really have a database that we can then go back to. Increasing it from 30 days, you never really had an opportunity to build up a database. Now you'll have 20 years of data."