NEWS GRAPHIC

A Montana state legislative committee is proposing a set of bills in the next legislative session that would revise state laws and sentencing for sexual assault, including a bill that would take away the requirement for victims to show that physical force was used.

The current consent statute is outdated, state Sen. Diane Sands of Missoula said. In light of the University of Montana’s recent sexual assault crisis, it’s important that the state take a serious look at the way it handles issues related to sexual assault, she said.

Sands sponsored the 2015 bill that called for a study of sexual assault laws, and she has served on the bipartisan Interim Law and Justice Committee. The committee voted in August to advance the six sexual assault bills to be introduced in the 2017 legislature.

Former Associated Students of the University of Montana President Cody Meixner said he and other campus leaders across the state urged legislators to revise Montana’s laws surrounding sexual assault during the 2015 legislative session, and he supported Sands’ study of sexual assault laws.

Right now is a good time for the legislature to take a look at sexual assault and consent, Sands said. It would be more difficult to push for the bills without the national attention Missoula has received for its handling of sexual assault at UM over the past several years.

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There have been some improvements, Sands said. Missoula and UM have revised many laws and policies concerning sexual assault in compliance with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education.

“It’s sort of the silver lining, if there is one, out of all the things that we learned going through the Department of Justice process,” Sands said.

By changing consent laws, the bill would, in theory, make more sexual assault cases prosecutable, Senior County Attorney Suzy Boylan said.

Right now, Boylan’s office has to turn down cases that don’t involve proof of force, and she said sometimes she has to turn down cases in which she believes the victim was sexually assaulted.

“It’s the worst thing ever to tell someone, ‘I’m sorry you were raped. I totally believe this was non-consensual, and it doesn’t fit our statute,’” she said.

Often, the brain’s response to trauma is to freeze, and victims may be too scared to use physical force and fight back, Boylan said.

Montana is one of many states in the process of revising its laws to reflect affirmative consent, in which the presence of an ongoing “yes” through body language or verbal communication is emphasized to confirm sexual consent, rather than the absence of a “no.”

The proposed consent law would better reflect the kind of cases Boylan sees in her office, and it isn’t particularly progressive or out of left-field, she said.

“It just sort of takes us out of the dark ages,” Boylan said.

Other proposed legislation would look at the illegal distribution of sexual images or recordings (or “revenge porn”), revising mandatory minimums for some statutory rape crimes, the statute of limitations for sex crimes against victims under 18, juvenile sex offender requirements, sexual assault laws regarding parental rights and incest laws.