Sexual assault is a serious crime that should be taken seriously. Unfortunately Utah has relatively high rates of rape and sexual assault compared to the rest of the nation. One in three women in Utah will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. Utah also has the highest reported rate of child sexual abuse in the country.
Police, prosecutors, and our communities must work to lower the rates of these crimes, encourage reporting, prosecute the perpetrators, and provide support to victims.
Victim advocates play an important role assisting victims of violent crime as they report what happened to them and navigate the legal process. These services can include:
- Crisis intervention and emotional support
- Information, resources, and referrals
- Assistance in decision-making
- Accompaniment to law enforcement interviews, medical forensic examinations, follow-up
appointments, investigative procedures, and courtroom proceedings
- Safety planning
- Assistance securing orders of protection
- Assistance accessing crime victim compensation
- Emergency shelter and/or financial assistance
- Counseling and case management
It is important to note that victims do not choose to be victims of crime, but because of the acts committed against them are put into a situation where they have to make life altering decisions involving their interactions with a system with which they are unlikely to be familiar. Very basic decisions such as how to best stay safe following an assault are greatly helped by the support of a trained advocate.
Alarmingly, in the most recent legislative session, Rep. LaVar Christensen introduced HB 399, which would have limited the role of victim advocates in cases of rape and sexual assault and had provisions that would have discouraged victims from testifying.
This bill was opposed by a variety of groups and individuals including the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Utah Prosecution Council, Police Chiefs from across the state, and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.
While the bill was tabled due to public outcry, Representative Christensen indicated that he intended to rework it and submit it again in the future.
HB 399 or a future bill like it would be a huge step backwards. From a fiscal standpoint, Utah would likely lose $18 million in federal funds that go towards victim advocate programs that help victims of violent crime. But more importantly enacting changes such as these would discourage victims from coming forward, and leave those who do come forward unsupported and potentially in danger.
Only 12% of rapes are even reported, and in Salt Lake County less than 6% of cases that were opened resulted in a guilty plea or conviction.
HB 399 would have done nothing to improve those statistics. Removing support from victims when they are most vulnerable only gives comfort to their attackers.
If Utah wants to make progress combatting this category of crimes it should work to test the extensive backlog of rape kits and ensure that going forward all kits are tested.
Supporting victims, protecting children, and prosecuting perpetrators are Utah values.