From the Daily: State should pass sexual assault bills

Thursday, February 23, 2017 - 6:59pm

As the future of many nationwide policies that aim to combat sexual assault hang in the balance, a bipartisan group of Michigan legislators has introduced a package of three bills to assist sexual assault survivors. Two of the bills, introduced in the state Senate, aim to increase the number of survivors receiving medical treatment and testing after an assault by lessening the charges to their insurance agencies and increasing funding to health care providers that provide these services. Separately, the state House bill allows for the inclusion of evidence that an accused assailant previously may have committed another sexual crime. These bills, while by no means fixing all the ills that face survivors in the aftermath of a sexual assault, go a long way in improving the care and justice they would receive in the state of Michigan. The Michigan Daily Editorial Board implores the Michigan State Legislature to pass these bills because they act in the best interest of survivors of sexual assault.

The Senate bills allocate funds to providers to cover the costs of hospital room fees, rape test kits and other medical testing provided to survivors of sexual assault, while prohibiting providers from charging patients for care after an assault not covered by insurance or not authorized by a patient. The bills also incentivize providers to ensure that survivors of sexual assault receive proper medical treatment, regardless of the costs they might incur. This particularly helps survivors of lower socioeconomic status, who might not have health insurance to cover the costs of treatment.

Furthermore, the bills, if passed, would allocate funding toward training medical personnel to tend to survivors of sexual assault. Since this training is highly specific, health care providers may have very few — if any — personnel available to aid survivors. By allocating funds toward this training, health care providers can increase the number of personnel able to help surviviors, thus improving the efficiency of their treatment. 

The House bill, which allows the use of a defendant’s history as evidence, will help survivors defend their cases if they choose to bring them to court. A 2015 study of college men published in JAMA Pediatrics estimated that 25 percent of sexual assailants are repeat offenders, a phenomenon especially prevalent on college campuses. The criminal justice system faces difficulties in prosecuting sexual assailants because, in many cases, the state prosecutors do not have enough evidence to meet criminal cases’ standards of proof. The private nature of sexual assault reduces many cases to one person’s word against another’s. Allowing the use of past history as evidence would help survivors build cases against sexual assailants. Pertinent information such as an assailant’s motives, patterns or methods would be used to help prosecute an offender in a court of law.  

While these bills are crucial, much needed steps toward ensuring survivors of sexual assault obtain care and justice, we hope that passing these bills will open up more important conversations about Michigan state law regarding sexual assault, such as further clarifying the definition of consent within the laws. Currently, state law does not have an explicit definition of consent, which often complicates the survivor’s case because of the evidentiary difficulties the crime presents. In order to best respect, protect and support survivors, the state must define consent more explicitly.

The University’s sexual misconduct policy defines consent as “a clear and unambiguous agreement, expressed outwardly through mutually understandable words or actions, to engage in a particular activity. Consent must be voluntarily given and cannot be obtained through coercion or force,” which recognizes the need for both parties’ agreement before engaging in sexual activity. Other states, such as California and New York, have affirmative consent laws that explicitly define the criteria needed for consent. 

We call upon the state of Michigan to pass these bills, as even these small steps help survivors immensely. However, state legislators must keep in mind the issue of sexual assault is much larger than the ability to receive proper and affordable medical treatment and resources to build court cases. Due justice for all parties will only come when the state laws themselves are clarified — a good start being for the state to pass meaningful consent standards.