Legislative Update — Why and How to Make Virginia a Safer Place to Live

Consider the facts:

  • Murdered UVA student Hannah Graham might be alive if Virginia had stricter laws about reporting campus sexual assaults. The man charged with her abduction previously was accused of rape while a student at Liberty University and again later at Christopher Newport University. Authorities investigated the charges by authorities, but no charges were filed.
  • Gun and domestic violence are a lethal combination. Nationally, there are nearly 500 domestic gun violence deaths each year – more than twice the number of servicewomen killed since the Korean War.

What can we do to make Virginia safer for women? Two bills are before the General Assembly that could help prevent domestic violence gun murders and reduce campus sexual assaults. They are a bill on removing guns from convicted abusers and a bill on reporting campus sexual assault. It’s too soon to say if real progress will be made on either but some Republicans and most Democrats are showing interest–perhaps recognizing the importance of the women’s vote.

Want to do something about domestic violence and campus sexual assault? Meet with legislators during the Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance advocacy day Wednesday, January 28. Let high school and college students know about this opportunity to make a difference! Sign up here. 

Read on and let’s get to work! Thank you for all you do every day for equality, 

Marj Signer, VA NOW Legislative V-P

Guns and Domestic Violence: Legislation to prevent gun violence is difficult to pass (in fact, the trend is the reverse – the sensible law limiting handgun purchases to one a month was overturned by then-Gov. McDonnell) but there is a possibility of getting Republican support for a bill that would remove guns from those convicted of certain domestic violence misdemeanors – only for a limited period of time but that’s better than nothing.
Senator Barbara Favola’s bill – SB943 – would prohibit a person who has been convicted of misdemeanor stalking, assault and battery of a family or household member, or sexual battery from possessing or transporting a firearm. To placate those fearful of a criminal losing unfettered access to his guns, her bill includes a process for reinstating his right to possess or transport a firearm. Most Virginia Republicans (and a few Democrats) either want to make guns more accessible or oppose restrictions but limiting convicted abusers’ access to guns may be one thing that they will support.

Campus Sexual Assault: Mostly in response to the shock over the murder of Hannah Graham, legislators are considering steps to improve how campus assaults are handled. They held a two-hour committee hearing Friday afternoon to try to sort out the complex issues involved in reporting campus sexual assault.

Virginia NOW is backing HB1343, Democratic Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn’s bill, which would require that campus police forces and law-enforcement agencies notify the local Commonwealth’s attorney of any investigation involving felony criminal sexual assault on campus within 48 hours of beginning the investigation. This is a reasonable bill that would protect victims’ options about reporting while providing information to non-campus authorities. For full information, read Legislators discuss reporting requirements on sexual violence on campuses (The News and Advance), which is also excerpted below.

In other news, the Senate Republicans killed off this year’s minimum wage increase request (to increase the floor to $10.10 an hour over the next two-and-a-half years). This bill was a priority for VA NOW and for the new Women’s Equality Coalition because women make up a majority of low-wage workers in Virginia and it’s essential to close the pay gap and promote economic security. More states are moving to increase the minimum wage, though: 29 states and the District of Columbia have minimums above the federal floor, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Maybe Virginia will also decide to enter the 21st Century but not this year.

Legislators discuss reporting requirements on sexual violence on campuses 

By Alicia Petska | Friday, January 16, 2015, The News and Advance)

Legislators tried to untangle a complex web of federal laws governing colleges and reports of sexual violence Friday as they prepare to consider a stack of bills on the issue.College representatives were critical of proposals to create a mandatory reporting requirement that would compel them to report assaults to local prosecutors.

Not all victims want to file a criminal complaint and that should be respected, officials said.

“Survivors need to have voices, choices and control over what happens in their case,” said Christine Dennis Smith, who oversees counseling at the Virginia Tech Women’s Center.

Mandatory reporting may further traumatize a victim and deter others from seeking help, said representatives ranging from campus police to Title IX coordinators. Title IX is a federal law that, in part, requires colleges to conduct an administrative investigation of sexual assault reports.

Multiple bills dealing with sexual violence on campuses have been filed in the wake of growing public concern and last year’s killing of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham. The man charged with her abduction, 32-year-old Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr., also faces charges on a 2005 assault in Northern Virginia. He previously was accused of rape while a student at Liberty University and again later at Christopher Newport University. Those cases were investigated by authorities, but no charges were filed….

On Friday, state delegates convened a joint session of the House Courts of Justice and House Education committees and asked to hear from those who could help them better understand the current reporting process and legal standards under Title IX and the federal Clery Act. Several lawmakers acknowledged the importance of honoring a victim’s wishes, but said they felt an obligation to protect others from serial predators. That leaves them grappling with the question of how to address those sometimes opposing interests.

“The issue is about balancing individual autonomy and control versus a community’s interest in putting bad guys in jail,” said House Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville.

“When we start talking about autonomy and a person’s ability to maintain control over whether or not something gets reported, you’re potentially putting other people, other women, at risk by not reporting somebody who might do it again.”

…Cynthia Micklem, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Richmond, said mandatory reporting doesn’t have to mean pushing a reluctant victim into a criminal case. “A well-informed and trained office is going to talk to the victim and allow the victim to still make decisions,” she said. “What mandatory reporting can do is notify law enforcement, someone outside the university, of what is occurring. Because right now, we have no way of knowing who these perpetrators are” even in cases of repeat offenders…..

Several lawmakers expressed interest in drafting a standardized script for college officials to ensure all victims are provided the same information and are adequately informed of their rights. … When some suggested it’d be difficult to write a script in time for the current General Assembly session, which ends in February, Del. Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville, said flatly, “We are going to write a script. The script will be written in two weeks. We would love to have your guidance, but something is going to happen.”

Come to Richmond for an up-close look at the legislative process. The League of Women Voters (LWV) Legislative Roundtable is held at 8:30 a.m. every Wednesday morning at the General Assembly Building and is an opportunity to hear legislators and advocacy organizations. Lobby days are held by individual organizations and coalitions and include:
  • The ERA coalition, 9:30 am Wednesday, January 21, directly after the LWV roundtable. Contact VA NOWPresident Diana Egozcue.
  • The Pro-Choice Coalition Day of Action, in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond, January 22, the Roe v. Wade anniversary. RSVP here.
  • The Health Care for All Virginians Coalition, January 28.This coalition advocates for expanding Medicaid for low-income Virginians.
  • The Sexual and Domestic Violence Action  Alliance advocacy day is Wednesday, January 28. Sign up here. 
  • VA NOW and League of Women Voters Women’s Lobby Day , Wednesday, February 4. Contact Marj at NOW for more information.

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