South Carolina lawmaker offers bills for assault survivors
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina lawmaker says she hopes legislation she’s introduced will close loopholes in the state’s laws that hinder prosecution of sexual assault crimes.
State Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell has filed bills in the House to establish a “Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights,” create a new crime of rape by fraud and would reclassify so-called date rape drugs as Schedule II drugs which she said would decrease the chances of trafficking and distribution.
The Lancaster attorney said the bills were written to encourage survivors to come forward while fixing a crack in the state’s legal system.
“I think that anytime that there is a loophole in a law that can be exploited, particularly when it comes to sexual assault, we need to close that loophole,” Powers Norrell said.
The survivors’ bill of rights outlines equal and legal protections for survivors from time of reporting the crime to when law enforcement closes the case. Rights including free forensic examinations, a victim advocate of the survivor’s choosing to be present throughout the investigation and the option to be interviewed by a law enforcement officer the gender of the survivor’s choosing.
South Carolina does not establish a definition for consent University of South Carolina law professor Colin Miller said. Miller worked with Powers Norrell to draft the bills and said because states do not define consent, it makes prosecuting sexual assault crimes difficult.
“The bill provides that definition of consent so that we can have this clear, enforceable concept in court that would define exactly what consent is,” Miller said.
Under this legislation, Powers Norrell said a person could be charged with rape by fraud if the victim was unaware of the nature of the act due to the perpetrator’s deception. The lawmaker cited a case at Purdue University where the perpetrator was not charged with rape because the act was voluntary though the victim was unaware of whom she was having sex with.
“He committed a fraudulent act, but there were no laws to convict him of it,” Powers Norrell said.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 63 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police. Executive Director of the Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands Mary Dell Hayes said her organization served over 2,500 survivors in 2018 from five South Carolina counties by providing survivor advocates, crisis intervention and individual counseling. Hayes said the majority of their clients come to them after the assault, some a few weeks or decades later.
“I think it’s critical when you talk about the solutions to the criminal justice system that we remember most survivors never have the opportunity to participate in that, and even when they do report their assault, it is highly unlikely it leads to a conviction,” Hayes said. “Oftentimes survivors don’t feel like they’re being seen or their voices aren’t being heard, and they don’t feel like people understand their experiences.”
According to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network’s website, out of 1,000 rape cases, 230 are reported to police, 46 reports lead to arrests, nine cases are referred to prosecutors and only five cases lead to a felony conviction.
Hayes said she supports the lawmaker’s efforts, but said it will take more than legislation to fix the problems.
“The burden of addressing these issues rests with the community,” Hayes said. “What we can do is give people the tools to have a healthy relationship and to understand consent from a very early age.”
Powers Norrell said she hopes lawmakers make it a priority this year.