Minnesota needs a special task force to examine the state's rape laws if the Legislature is serious about fixing well-documented investigative shortcomings, a leader of a victim advocacy group told lawmakers Thursday.
The proposal for a "statutory reform working group" has been a priority for groups like the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault since a Star Tribune investigation last year that found widespread failings in how law enforcement agencies respond to rape.
"We believe it is the most effective and efficient way to tackle this all at once," said Lindsay Brice, legal and policy director for the coalition. "We really see this as an opportunity for the Legislature to work together with a very minuscule fiscal impact to have a substantial impact on victims and survivors and how our system operates."
Lawmakers from the state House and Senate are meeting this week to reconcile major differences in the public safety spending packages passed by each chamber. Unlike the House measure, the Senate bill has no provision for a task force. A separate Senate bill to create a task force to revise the state's criminal sexual conduct laws has gained little traction.
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chairman of the Senate's public safety and judiciary finance and policy committee, said he is skeptical of task forces. But in an interview Thursday, he acknowledged that taking a closer look at rape laws "is a subject that does need to be clarified and is important."
"I don't necessarily prefer task forces that are made up of stakeholders because quite often we arrive at a predisposed conclusion," said Limmer. Instead, he prefers working groups of legislators who call in stakeholders for testimony.
Amid stalled budgetary targets from legislative leadership, the public safety conference committee has made no decisions on how to structure its final spending bill. Lawmakers on Thursday nonetheless heard testimony on more than two dozen House proposals. During testimony on the measure to establish the task force, Limmer suggested that the proposal still needs to be refined to ensure a wide representation of different stakeholders.
The task force measure, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Moller, D-Shoreview, would require the public safety commissioner to appoint representatives from city and county prosecuting agencies, statewide victim coalitions, judges, public defenders, law enforcement officers and "other interested parties." The group would then assess sex assault laws and send a report to the Legislature by October 2020.
Moller said Thursday she would be open to further discussion on the task force's composition. But both Moller and Brice believe it is important to have rape victims represented.
"They're the ... survivors we really want to have at the table," Moller said in an interview this week. "They're the ones that can tell us what it is where there are either system failures or ways we can improve our system."
In testimony Thursday, Brice pointed out how other reforms, such as the recent repeal of an antiquated marital rape exception, traced their origins to studies done by her coalition. But the complexity of the state's sex assault laws require that work be done on a broader scale, she said.
"I've been working with survivors of sexual and domestic violence for 20 years [and] I pull out my statute book every single time someone asks me a question about criminal sexual conduct," Brice said.
Other changes to how police and prosecutors handle rape cases advanced at the Capitol on Thursday as Limmer set forth a package of measures heading for a floor vote in the coming week.
His bill would let victims report sex assaults to any law enforcement agency, regardless of where the crime happened. Once notified, police agencies would then be required to investigate or forward the case to the proper agency. Police chiefs at every state and local law enforcement agency would also be required to create and enforce a written policy for responding to sexual assault reports.
"We want to make it as easy as possible for a victim to immediately report it without being influenced by whatever ... would cause that person to be shy or feel as though they should not report," Limmer said.
Limmer's bill also prohibits police officers from sexual contact with those in their custody and under restraint. Under the law, consent in such situations would not be a defense.
Rep. Marion O'Neill, R-Maple Lake, also presented "Hannah's Law," named for a victim raped when she was 13 by two 21-year-olds who escaped prosecution in Ramsey County because of a current law that provides a defense for defendants who can prove they thought the victim was 16.
Testimony on a bill to wipe out statutes of limitation for certain sex offenses prompted some of the most heated discussion, as some lawmakers raised concerns about witnesses' memories after long periods of time. Others argued that evidence can be lost or destroyed.
But Sarah Super, one of two rape survivors to testify, told lawmakers that victims should always be encouraged to report their attacks, regardless of how much time has passed and regardless of whether it brings perpetrators to justice.
"To have the choice to report even if we don't control the outcome of the case — even having the choice to report is important for survivors' healing," she said.