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Legislator Seeks to “Rewrite” Alaska’s Consent Law, Speed Up Rape Kit Testing

Stack of papers and a rape kit supplies on a table.
Sexual Assault Evidence Kit. Photo available on public domain via Flickr (2014)

Dozens of bills were pre-filed ahead of the Alaska Legislature convening today. One specifically looks to rewrite the state statute regarding “consent” with the goal of achieving justice for more sexual assault survivors.

Representative Geran Tarr of Anchorage, House District 19, pre-filed House Bill 5 earlier this month [on Jan 8th] which includes rape kit testing reform, further protections for underage victims of sexual abuse, and updates the state’s decades-old sexual consent law.

“So that there is agreement about whatever kind of sexual experience takes place. So, there’s no confusion…What’s interesting in Alaska Statute, consent isn’t defined in that way [with an active/affirmative approach]. It’s defined as without consent. So, it’s already put in this other frame that is very different from where we’re going now. So that’s a big change to have it be more active.”

– Representative Geran Tarr

As the law is currently written, an offender commits a sexual assault felony if it can be proved the offender used force, implied or otherwise, to have sex with the victim and the accused was also mentally aware they didn’t have consent from the victim.

This creates many loopholes where offenders can slip through the criminal justice system without being prosecuted for sexual assault, as Tarr explains.

“In the trauma response there is fight, flight, and freeze. And there are many circumstances, and terrible stories that I’ve heard where a sexual assault occurred where there was either some kind of weapon, or threatening language, but no physical signs of abuse. Those cases have not been able to be prosecuted because the instructions that the jury gets, from the way the statute is written, makes them think they’re looking for physical signs of an assault taking place.”

Tarr would go on to say that during statewide meetings regarding this legislation, every person she spoke to said that the issue of consent had affected them in some way. Input from students, national groups, district attorneys, and people from all regions of the state went into crafting her bill.

Another part of Representative Tarr’s pre-filed bill addresses what should be considered appropriate and inappropriate relationships in society. Tarr says right now, Alaska law treats relationships between older high schoolers and 22-year-olds the same as relationships between teenagers and 30 or 40-year-old adults.

“And again, why we think it’s important is then what conversation comes out of this is: you really create this expectation of what relationships are acceptable, and this other idea that when there’s a significant age gap, like a 16-year-old and a 30-year-old, that we don’t think those relationships are acceptable because that is such a significant age gap.”

Besides the refining of state statutes, House Bill 5 would also require sexual assault examination kits, also known as rape kits, to be tested within six months of being received at the state crime lab.

Rep. Tarr said in a press release, “we worked closely with professionals at our state crime lab to step up the pace at which rape kits are processed, knowing that each step of the way we would need additional staff and training time. The lab is now ready to make the next step toward processing kits within six months of receiving them, with the ultimate goal of processing within 60 days. This is the last provision of our multi-year Rape Kit Reform Initiative, which accomplished multiple objectives, including multiple pieces of legislation and funding to process the backlog of rape kits. Tragically, we can’t change the past. But we can fulfill our responsibility to seek justice for all Alaskans with the timely processing of rape kits.”

The 32nd Legislative Session began today, but it is unclear when Tarr’s bill will be heard by the House.

Image at top: Sexual Assault Evidence Kit. Photo: public domain via Flickr (2014)

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