Over the past several weeks, the Pennsylvania Legislature has passed one new bill and enacted two laws that will help victims of sexual assault, intimidation, and bullying. Each of these represents a step forward in the way that victims of violence are protected in our state by allowing more people to obtain orders of protection, making it more likely that sexual offenders will be prosecuted, and making cyber harassment of minors a crime. Check out these summaries of each of the new laws, and find out more about how you can help us in our mission to end all types of violence below!
Since the 1970’s, victim of domestic violence in Pennsylvania have been able to obtain Protection from Abuse orders. Now, victims of sexual violence or intimidation can obtain orders of protection under the Protection of Victims of Sexual Violence or Intimidation Act. This law — effective July 1, 2015 — differs significantly from the Protection from Abuse Act in that it does not require a familial or household relationship between the abuser and victim. Under the Act, victims of sexual violence can apply for a Sexual Violence Protection order, which would require the abuser to stay away from the victim for up to three years. Victims of intimidation can apply for Protection from Intimidation orders, which also are valid for up to three years. However, there is an age restriction on these intimidation orders — the victim must be under 18 and the abuser must be 18 or older in order to qualify. Because the Act is new, we don’t yet know how the law will be applied. Learn more on our Protection Orders page, or call us at 1-888-832-2272 or 724-836-1122 for more information.
The Backlog Bill
Across the nation, tens or even hundreds of thousands of DNA specimens collected from victims of sexual assault are untested. This means that the perpetrators of these crimes may never be brought to justice — and that they can continue to commit crimes while their prior offenses remain unsolved in part because the DNA collected from the victims (known as rape kits) has never been tested. The number of untested rape kits is likely even higher — potentially hundreds of thousands — because many states, including Pennsylvania, do not require law enforcement to track or count rape kits. The problem arises in one of two ways: either police log the kits into evidence but never send them to crime labs to be tested, or the kits are sent to labs but are not tested in a timely manner. In Pennsylvania, House Bill 272 seeks to change this reality, by specific measures to ensure that rape kits do not go untested or uncounted. This bill would require local law enforcement to submit evidence from sexual assault cases to approved laboratories within 15 days of collection — reducing the possibility that police could log these kits into evidence and never send them to be tested. The labs would be required to complete testing of the evidence within 6 months of receipt — ensuring that the evidence will be tested in a timely manner. This evidence can then be uploaded into different databases to help solve related cases (such as serial rapes), and it would require authorities to submit reports on testing backlogs. Finally, the bill would require victims or surviving family members to be notified when DNA testing has been completed.
House Bill 272 (also known as the Backlog Bill) now awaits Governor Wolf’s signature. It represents a positive step for the prosecution of sexual assault cases in Pennsylvania. We commend our statewide organization, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape for their work in helping to ensure that this bill was passed.
Cyber Bullying Bill
With the rise in the use of the internet and social media, many parents worry about how to keep their children safe from bullying and harassment — which is no longer confined to school settings, but can happen at any time and any place. In Pennsylvania, a new law aims to address these concerns by making cyber bullying a criminal act. Essentially, if a person — a minor or an adult — harasses a child online, he could be guilty of this crime. The law specifically prohibits the use of electronic communications to repeatedly make statements or offer opinions about a child’s sexuality, sexual orientation, physical characteristics or mental health to cause serious emotional distress. This law will be effective in September 2015, and will ensure that advances in technology won’t increase the likelihood that vulnerable people will be bullied or harassed.
Of course, laws alone won’t end gender violence; in order to achieve our mission, we need a fundamental change in the way our society thinks. We encourage and support legislative efforts to protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice — while working to change the cultural norms that lead to abuse in the first place. If you’d like to help us achieve these goals, you can do so by volunteering for or donating to our organization. You can also take the pledge to end gender violence, schedule an educational program, become a conscious consumer of media, and learn more about different types of abuse. Sign up for our newsletter to be notified about legislative action and other important news and information!