ST. PAUL, Minn. — A Minnesota House panel launched three days of hearings Tuesday aimed at turning a spotlight on gender-based violence and closing loopholes and other gaps in state statutes that can make it hard to prosecute such crimes.
"For too long, victims and survivors of sexual assault have had our justice system fail them in their efforts to hold their violators accountable," said Rep. Carlos Mariani, a St. Paul Democrat who chairs a House criminal justice reform committee that's holding the hearings.
One of the top proposals highlighted at a news conference Tuesday was a bill based on model standards drafted by the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board for conducting conduct sexual assault investigations. Rep. Kelly Moller, a Shoreview Democrat and Hennepin County prosecutor, said the bill will ensure that local law enforcement agencies adopt those or comparable standards.
The POST Board developed the protocols in response to a Star Tribune investigation published last year that documented widespread failings in how Minnesota authorities deal with sex crimes. Similarly, FBI data provided to The Associated Press last year showed that police across the country are becoming increasingly less likely to successfully close rape investigations.
A bill to create a task force on the plight of missing and slain indigenous women, by Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, was one of the first on the committee's agenda. The New Brighton Democrat is also sponsoring another bill that would define the non-consensual intentional touching of another person's clothed buttock with sexual intent as fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct. As she spoke, she and other women held red shawls that represent murdered and indigenous women.
An Associated Press investigation last year found that nobody knows precisely how cases of missing and murdered Native American women there are nationwide are because some cases go unreported, others aren't documented thoroughly and there's no specific government database tracking these cases. But the long-neglected issue is gaining political traction in the #MeToo era amid an expanding activist movement focused on Native American women.
Kunesh-Podein's proposals were among several on the theme of gender-based violence that had bipartisan support in the 2018 session but died amid the partisan rancor that marred the closing days. Since then, Democrats have taken control of the Minnesota House, and new Gov. Tim Walz has been stressing bipartisan cooperation. Mariani said Republican Warren Limmer, who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, has expressed "strong interest" in working with House Democrats on some of the proposals.
"These things that happen primarily to women are not new," said Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, a Roseville Democrat and Hennepin County prosecutor who focuses on domestic violence cases. "We're just finally getting to the point where we have a critical mass and we have leadership that's taking it seriously and moving us forward."
A bill by Rep. Zack Stephenson would repeal the state's "voluntary relationship defense," which prevents a man who drugs his wife and rapes her while she's unconscious from being prosecuted for rape. "Real people are denied justice because of the operation of this law," the Coon Rapids Democrat said.
Other initiatives on the agenda for the hearings, which run through Thursday, include lifting the state's statute of limitations for reporting felony-level criminal sexual assault cases, which typically runs three to nine years, and creating a task force to rewrite state's entire criminal sexual conduct statute top to bottom.