Every 23 hours, a person is raped in Montana. Last year, over 800 sexual assaults and 4,000 domestic violence crimes were reported statewide. However, this accounts for only a fraction of the total number of crimes that actually occur, as most go unreported. What these statistics show is clear: We must improve how we address crimes of this nature in Montana. Fortunately, recent changes to state law will go a long way in reducing the frequency of these crimes, as well as provide victims the justice and support they deserve.
The 2017 Montana Legislative Session will go down in history as a turning point for addressing domestic and sexual violence in our state. With overwhelming support, legislators from both sides of the aisle passed a number of bills this session that significantly change how we address these types of crimes. A few of these bills are:
- SB 22 - Terminating parental rights of a rapist if a child is born as a result of rape
- SB 29 - Revising the definition of consent
- SB 30 - Increase the statute of limitations from 10 years to 20 years for sex crimes involving children
- SB 153 - Making strangulation of a partner or family member a felony
I’m honored my office was so closely involved in drafting several of these bills, as well as working to get them passed and signed into law. While each piece of legislation is an important improvement to Montana law, two bills in particular stand out as the most significant: Senate Bill 29 and Senate Bill 153.
Senate Bill 29, sponsored by Senator Diane Sands (D) of Missoula, was drafted by my office and the Legislative Law and Justice Interim Committee. Prosecutors, law enforcement and victim advocates all largely agree this bill is the most significant update to Montana’s sexual assault statutes in decades, removing barriers which frequently prevent prosecutors from charging rape crimes in our state.
Prior to Senate Bill 29 becoming law, Montana’s sexual assault laws were antiquated and did not accurately reflect the realities of many instances of rape. Under our old statute, prosecutors had to prove a rapist physically attacked the victim, or threatened to physically attack the victim, and that is what forced submission. Senate Bill 29 defined consent as most people likely believed it was defined before: “Consent means words or overt actions indicating a freely given agreement to have sexual intercourse or sexual contact.”
In addition to improving Montana’s sexual assault statutes, the legislature also passed an important piece of legislation to protect victims of domestic abuse. Senate Bill 153, sponsored by Senator Margie MacDonald (D) of Billings, was drafted by my office and the Yellowstone County Attorney’s office, and made the act of strangling a partner or family member a felony.
When a victim is strangled by a partner or family member, the likelihood of future abuse escalating to fatalities increases significantly. Under the old law, an act of strangulation was only a felony if serious bodily injury occurred, which was often very difficult to identify, as the damage is often internal. If serious injury isn’t proven, or if the victim didn’t testify that she feared for her life, the act of strangulation was only a misdemeanor crime, and wouldn’t have become a felony until the third offense.
By making the act of strangulation in the partner and family member context a felony on the first offense, Senate Bill 153 will help interrupt the cycle of violence, preventing further abuse and even death. I firmly believe Senate Bill 153 will save lives.
Reducing the frequency of sexual assault and domestic violence crimes must be a top priority for policymakers at all levels of government. I’m very pleased to see the legislature overwhelmingly support important changes to our state’s sexual assault and domestic abuse statutes this session, and I’m proud my office could be a part of it.
Tim Fox is Montana’s Attorney General.