Montana legislature grapples with sexual violence

After a university scandal, Senate Bill 29 could change how rapes are prosecuted.

 

Gabriel Furshong is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes from Helena, Montana.


Doubleday published the book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, in May 2015. Written by Jon Krakauer, it quickly jumped to number three on The New York Times bestseller list in the first week of sales and also helped fuel a national dialogue on the way sexual assault is handled at colleges.

Missoula focused on the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into the handling of rape cases by the University of Montana, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and the Missoula Police Department. In May 2012, when the federal agency first announced the investigation, citing 80 reported rape cases in the last three years as justification, many residents of this liberal college community were shocked by the news. Others were not surprised. 

“Women have been working on this issue for a hundred years,” says Montana Sen. Diane Sands, “and I’ve personally been working on the issue for decades.”

The University of Montana's Grizzly Bear mascot in front of the main hall.
Jitze Couperus/Flickr

Sands, a Democrat, represents Senate District 49, which covers western Missoula, in the state legislature. The mostly urban district lies just a couple miles from the University of Montana, where Sands studied anthropology from 1971-’74. A determined student organizer, she helped found the campus Women’s Center and worked to raise awareness about sexual assault and gender discrimination. 

Overall, progress has been slow, according to Sands. “Women can raise their voices until hell freezes over,” she says. “But it’s only when men stand up and take responsibility for regulating other men that change begins to occur.”

So, when the country’s top cop, Attorney General Eric Holder, announced the Justice Department’s investigation, Sands wondered whether a larger change was finally underway. Her hopes were realized two years later when the agency reached separate agreements with the Missoula City Police Department, the University of Montana Police Department and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office on how to fairly and effectively handle reports of sexual assault.

In addition, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican, agreed to monitor the county’s efforts to implement the agreement, thus adding to a growing list of men willing to confront sexual assault. “The fact is that 97 percent of victims are women, so it’s important for men to step up,” says Fox, who announced the county’s full compliance with the agreement in August of last year. 

By then, Sands had teamed up with Fox to devise and deploy her own plan of action. “There are times when you can change certain things,” she says, “so as a person who works in the political arena, I’m looking for those moments where we can move forward.”

The Montana Legislature meets biannually, in odd-numbered years, from January through April. In 2015, Sands wrote and passed a bill requiring the Law and Justice Interim Committee to study sexual violence and recommend updates to Montana’s “antiquated” laws on sexual crimes. Fox supported the bill, and it passed by overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate.

Sands served as vice chair of the interim committee, which recommended seven bills for the 2017 session, including Senate Bill 29, which would change Montana’s sexual assault laws to comport with the U.S. Military Code of Conduct. Among other changes, the bill would amend the definition of sexual intercourse without consent, removing the requirement that a person must try to physically fight back against an offender in order to be considered a victim of rape. The bill also, for the first time, defines consent as “words or overt actions indicating a freely given agreement to have sexual intercourse or sexual contact” with another person.

According to Jennifer Clark, a sexual crimes and domestic violence prosecutor for Missoula County, these changes in Montana law would accurately reflect “the reality of the cases” reported to her office. “In most of the cases we see, a victim will indicate their lack of consent in many ways, either verbally or nonverbally,” she explained in her testimony to the Senate Law and Justice Committee. But because consent is not currently defined in statute, Clark often has to tell victims, who may have been paralyzed by fear or were otherwise incapacitated, “Yes, you were raped, but legally, you were not.”

Sands’ bill seeks to keep painful conversations like this from happening in the future. It passed the Senate 46-0 on Jan. 19 and is soon expected to pass the House. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has made it clear he will approve the measure if given the opportunity. If that day comes, Sands will be in the room to watch the ink dry on his signature. 

“People aren’t looking the other way anymore,” she says. “It’s a change in the law that has waited a century.”

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...