Legislators find common ground in reform of sex assault statutes
By Michael Siebert/UM Legislative News Service
HELENA – Though the 2017 Montana Legislative session has seen more than its fair share of partisan disputes, one issue has united lawmakers — reforming state law on rape and sexual assault.
The Montana Senate advanced a package of bills last week that deal with everything from the parental rights of children conceived by rape to the very definition of “consent.”
“It’s been a long time coming, and I really appreciate that we’ve kept it out of all of the politics and whatever dynamics could be out there,” said Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “We’re looking at this in terms of what’s really good for the citizens of Montana, and preserves public safety, while dealing with modernizing the statute.”
Sands sponsored Senate Bill 29, which revises the definition of the word “consent,” and eliminates the requirement that an assault involve force in order for it to be defined as rape. The bill passed its final vote in the Senate unanimously last week, and received broad support during testimony while in committee. It now moves to the House.
Sands also sponsored Senate Bill 30, which increases the statute of limitations from 10 years to 20 for sex crimes against children. The bill also passed its final Senate vote, but at a margin of 35-14.
‘Careful deliberation’ of the issue
Those bills, and several others, were part of a collection of bills developed during the Interim Law and Justice Committee. The committee met over the course of 18 months, specifically examining sexual assault.
The committee had the support of Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, who has named sexual assault reform as a top priority in both of his terms.
“The laws right now are antiquated and don’t reflect the information that’s available regarding sexual assault,” said Eric Sell, communications director for the Montana Department of Justice.
Sell said Fox worked closely with the committee on SB 29, and has been an ardent supporter of many other reform measures.
The committee also heard from a range of experts in the field, from law enforcement to groups that work on all aspects of domestic and sexual violence.
“We didn’t want to just focus on what happens with the victim, but what happens to the perpetrators as well,” Sands said. “How do we deal with people who are convicted of sexual assault?”
One of the groups involved in the committee’s work was the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Robin Turner, the group’s public policy and legal director, said the goal was to change Montana’s laws to reflect a more evidence-based approach regarding sexual assault.
“People who have worked in the violence against women movement, and advocates, have known for a long time that our criminal laws do not fully encompass what happens to survivors,” Turner said.
Turner said the primary goals of the coalition, and other advocacy groups, were to educate the committee on the complexities of sexual assault narratives. They informed the committee that many victims do not report their assaults, while many others do not pursue criminal litigation. One of the biggest myths they sought to dispel was that rape victims are automatically inclined to fight back against their assailants — a notion that informed the requirement of force in cases of rape.
Lawmakers who worked both on and off the committee believe that it was this intensive exploration of the subject that lent legitimacy to the bills.
“The very careful deliberation and kind of deep dive that the interim committee did on these questions enabled both very conservative Republicans and very liberal Democrats to find common ground,” said Sen. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings. MacDonald did not serve on the committee, but has carried legislation pertaining to sexual assault throughout her multiple sessions as a lawmaker.
The evolution of attitude
MacDonald said the bipartisan support is perhaps the result of how attitudes surrounding sexual assault have evolved over the last few decades.
“It’s not a world now where one sex can sort of get away with treating the other one just because of their gender with disrespect,” MacDonald said. “People have come to appreciate that there are consequences for those kinds of attitudes.”
Sen. Nels Swandal, R-Wilsall, believes that public perceptions around sex crimes have shifted in part because of the national attention on the subject. He cited the University of Montana football team’s sexual assault scandal and subsequent Department of Justice and Department of Education investigations as events that increased awareness.
“You frankly wonder what young men are being taught, or where are they coming up with this idea of women,” Swandal said. “And how they almost seem like they have a right to assault women.”
Swandal, a former judge, sponsored Senate Bill 17, which would eliminate the requirement that convicted juveniles register as sex offenders. It passed unanimously last week as well. He repeatedly spoke in favor of Sen. Sands’ bills during last Wednesday’s floor debate, and is the leading Republican involved in the bills.
“Protecting victims from obvious criminal offenses, that’s just never a partisan issue as far as I know,” Swandal said.
Legislators believe this opinion extends to Montana at large. Sen. Cynthia Wolken, D-Missoula, is carrying her own group of bills pertaining to victim advocacy. She cited the passage of Marsy’s Law, a victim’s rights citizens’ initiative that was voted into law last November, as indicative of Montanans’ desire for advocacy.
“Voters definitely want to support victims of crime,” Wolken said. “They want us, as a government and every layer of the system, to be treating them with respect and making sure that their experiences are honored, and that there is accountability in the system for perpetrators.”
Michael Siebert is a reporter with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.