MISSOULA — For the first time in decades, Montana made comprehensive updates to its sexual assault law, drawing Gov. Steve Bullock, Attorney General Tim Fox, several legislators and advocates to Missoula for a signing ceremony.
“Most of these laws were passed in the 1970s when we had a very different idea of what sexual assault was. We have had many cases of a sexual assault that everyone agrees was a sexual assault [but] isn’t a sexual assault under the law,” said Sen. Diane Sands, a veteran Missoula Democrat who led much of the work to study the issues and draft the new laws.
“We looked at really what it takes to convict someone of sexual assault. I’m very pleased we could actually pass these pieces of legislation, in most cases pretty much unanimously," she said.
Bullock signed two bills in the ceremony at Missoula City Council Chambers on Monday, but celebrated the larger package of six bills as an important bipartisan effort of the Interim Law and Justice Committee in 2015 and 2016 as well as the 2017 Montana Legislature.
“We have those moments where the greater good is definitely recognized, where we see the challenges that can literally destroy and devastate people’s lives,” Bullock said.
Fox agreed. “This was a long process to get rid of the societal bias that we’ve seen historically,” he said. “We’re not done yet. But this is a momentous occasion.”
The signature reform in the package changed the legal definition of sexual assault.
Previously, victims had to prove they were violently attacked or threatened in the course of a rape. The new statute allows prosecutors to charge people who use such force with aggravated sexual assault. Now, they also can prosecute people for sexual assault if they cannot prove they received consent. That includes, but is not limited to, cases where the attacker drugged their victim, the attacker claimed to have consent because of a previous or ongoing relationship, or the attacker was in a position of authority that made it difficult for the victim to speak up.
The changes reflect a better understanding that is common for victims to freeze out of fear and not fight attackers, as well as the fact that many offenders manipulate targets without violence.
That measure, Senate Bill 29, passed the Legislature 148-2. Only two Republican House members opposed the change: Brad Tschida of Missoula and Adam Rosendale of Billings.
Bills signed by the governor in May expanded from 10 to 20 years the length of time a child survivor of sexual violence has to press criminal charges; allow survivors to seek to terminate the parental rights of their attacker for a child born as a result of rape; exclude from the sex offender registry some people convicted of statutory rape at age 18 for having sex someone 14 years or older, and various other changes to related sentencing laws.
Several people credited the sweeping reforms to an increased public awareness of rape and the difficulty of prosecuting attackers as the national spotlight burned on Missoula.
The University of Montana, city and county first came under scrutiny in late 2011 following high-profile rape allegations involving football players, and as the U.S. Department of Justice launched three investigations on flaws in how officials handled rape reports. The community has since made numerous reforms in policy and training that has increased the prosecution rate of such crimes.
By contrast, Sands referenced Yellowstone County and the City of Billings, where none of the 60 rapes reported in 2016 led to criminal charges, a fact revealed by a previous Lee Newspaper report. She and others hope that statistic can be reversed, in part, because of the changes made by the 2017 Legislature.
Not all of the bills proposed to amend state law related to rape were approved. For instance, some bills would have required training for teachers and other school officials about the needs of children survivors and how to spot signs of such abuse. Advocates also have encouraged state and local governments to increase funding for services to help victims recover or offenders rehabilitate.