Law proposal will increase access to sexual assault justice

STATE ISSUES: Proposed legislation would make it easier for victims of sexual assault to access the support they need and bring their attackers to justice.

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The prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses across the country has reached the point where the need for sweeping institutional reform is undeniable. Exacerbated by notions of assumed consent in modern ‘hookup culture,’ abundant drug and alcohol use, misunderstandings and malevolence, sexual assault — and university and government authorities’ failure to properly respond to it — has become an epidemic. Legislation proposed by three Sacramento lawmakers on Monday represents a solvent institutional response to the problem, as it seeks to tighten and standardize sexual assault policies across California colleges and make those policies more survivor-centered.

The proposed law — SB 967 — improves upon the efforts of even the most progressive universities, like the UC system, to address sexual assault. By their very nature, sexual assault cases are difficult to prosecute. They are often characterized by a lack of physical evidence since the crimes tend to take place in private and are sometimes not reported until some time after the fact. For all California colleges, SB 967 would establish a “preponderance of the evidence standard in the determination of disciplinary action,” meaning courts would give extra consideration to incomplete or inconclusive evidence in sexual assault cases. In this way, the benefit of the doubt would be given to the survivors, encouraging them to speak out and help ensure that more perpetrators of sexual assault are brought to justice.

But the law does more than simply aim to increase the perpetrated-to-prosecuted rate — it works to spark a necessary cultural shift in what it means to engage in consensual sexual activity. Though any policy is incapable of fully addressing the crux of the sexual assault problem, the proposal’s requirement that defendants in a sexual assault case demonstrate they obtained verbal “affirmative consent” before engaging in sexual activity makes SB 967  a step in the right direction. By setting clearer parameters and removing ambiguity around consent, this mandate places responsibility for consent on both parties and thus makes cases of assault easier to prosecute.

Tough action against perpetrators of sexual assault, and stringent, comprehensive policy standards on college campuses where many sexual assaults occur are necessary to stem this national epidemic. The proposals outlined in SB 967 represent the best policy solution to the problem of sexual assault at California schools thus far, and should be adopted by the California legislature. Although in most cases this mandate will be a simple inconvenience, it is necessary to shift the paradigm away from assumed notions of consent under which sexual assault have proliferated.