A working group tasked with studying gaps in the state's sexual assault laws says Minnesota needs to make it easier for victims of extortion and alcohol-related assaults to get justice.

The group's recommendations, prompted by the Star Tribune's "Denied Justice" investigative series, now head to the State Capitol, where a bipartisan group of legislators say they're hopeful the changes will pass the Legislature this session.

"I think this is a good first step, and it shows that our statutes can evolve over time with thoughtful consideration and input from the people who those laws are meant to serve," said Megan Arriola, a sexual assault survivor and advocate who was part of the working group. "My goal was to make sure that, when someone does approach me and a fellow advocate and tells us that they were a victim of sexual violence, that we can feel confident in directing them to seek justice through the criminal justice system."

Representatives from state and local law enforcement agencies, the courts, attorneys and survivors of rape and sexual assault spent a year examining the state's criminal sexual conduct laws at the request of the Legislature. Their goal was to address some of the issues raised in the Star Tribune investigation, including gaps that make it harder to prosecute sexual assault and rape cases where someone was drinking or situations where the victim was blackmailed or threatened by a perpetrator.

State law considers someone "mentally incapacitated" only if the person becomes intoxicated involuntarily, or another person drugged the victim. That poses a "significant roadblock" to prosecuting cases where someone is voluntarily intoxicated but unable to consent, the report said. The recommendations want to add voluntary intoxication to the definition of "mentally incapacitated."

More than a half-dozen states, including Wisconsin, outlaw engaging in sexual contact with a person who is too intoxicated to consent.

"There are definitely pieces of this that, my guess would be what the general public thinks is: 'Wait, that wasn't already illegal?' " said Lindsay Brice, law and policy director for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. She said there are assault victims who "want their cases to be charged but can't currently because of the way our statutes are written."

The working group also wants lawmakers to create a new crime of sexual extortion, when a perpetrator threatens someone's employment, housing, immigration status or threatens to release private sexual images of the person, which then leads to unwanted sexual contact.

These kinds of threats, ­while regularly experienced by victims of sexual assault, are not explicitly prohibited under state law, according to the report.

"What we're hearing from survivors is that cases just weren't getting charged because of how our statutes work — or in many cases, don't work in that area," said Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, who is sponsoring some of the recommended changes in the House. "We want to make sure we are covering those cases so that victims can get justice."

The working group was created to take a holistic approach to re-evaluating the state's sexual assault laws, instead of the incremental changes of the past. But members of the group say this is just a first step in a long process that needs to also evaluate issues related to the state's predatory offender registration system and the larger racial disparities in the system for victims of color.

"This type of crime is one that needs continuing attention, and it needs all oars rowing in the same direction and everyone involved in the criminal justice system," said former Attorney General Lori Swanson, who assembled a task force in 2018 to examine the state's response to sexual assault. "To give voice not only to the victims but to make sure the perpetrators are caught and can't do this again."

Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said these are important steps, but there's still a lot of work to do in changing the culture within law enforcement around rape and sexual assault.

The yearlong "Denied Justice" project found hundreds of cases in which police didn't pursue basic investigative steps and victims were often dismissed and traumatized by the process.

"It's one step in a complex range of things that needs to be done. There has to be stronger and better investigation. There has to be a lot more support of victims," Schnell said. "We have to be changing and shifting those cultural dynamics."

Staff reporter Jennifer Bjorhus contributed to this report.

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042