New law makes it easier to report sexual assault in Wisconsin

Posted April 6, 2016

A new law in Wisconsin will make it easier for victims of sexual assault to report to law enforcement.

The Sexual Assault Victim Amnesty Bill, or Assembly Bill 808, was signed into law on Thursday, March 24, by Gov. Scott Walker on the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point campus. The law prohibits law enforcement from issuing an underage drinking ticket to a victim or bystander when reporting a sexual assault. It also prohibits the UW System from taking disciplinary action against students when reporting.

State Rep. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan), who authored the bill, said she doesn’t expect the law to solve the problem of sexual assault. However, she said, it will allow for young people all around Wisconsin who have been through a traumatic experience to be relieved of fear while reporting to law enforcement.

“(The law) will make sure that all young people know that there’s the same even playing field all across Wisconsin,” Ballweg said. “Whether they’re on campus, whether they’re in town in a campus town, or whether they’re back home, they’re going to be treated by law enforcement exactly the same.”

Working with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department and the UW-Madison student organization Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment (PAVE), which focuses on support for assault victims, Ballweg said that the bill was passed through the support of both Democrats and Republicans.

“Because we worked with all the interested parties, everybody in the end was supportive of the proposal,” Ballweg said. “It didn’t matter what side of the aisle you were on.”

In the UW System, a total of 461 cases of sexual assault and harassment were reported in 2014. UW-River Falls had 16 cases, according to the University of Wisconsin System Annual Report on Sexual Assault and Harassment.

However, according to the spring 2015 National College Health Assessment Survey, 126 females and 72 males at UW-River Falls reported being sexually assaulted.

Brooke Marlow, client support advocate for the St. Croix Valley Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), said that students are afraid to come forward for a variety of reasons, and that most students who are sexually assaulted do not end up reporting.

“Certainly there are plenty of reasons why victims choose not to come forward, to not get medical attention, to not go to law enforcement,” Marlow said. “But the fear of getting a ticket after being victimized, we don’t want that to be a barrier.”

Erin McNiff, client service coordinator at SART and campus victim advocate for UWRF, said that the way to further encourage people to report is through education. By teaching people what resources are available to them and what laws protect them, victims of sexual assault are more likely to come forward and get the justice that they deserve.

“The fact that people know more and more about our services, we have gotten more and more individuals coming in,” McNiff said. “It doesn’t mean more assaults are happening, more people are educated about it.”

Marlow said that it is not common for law enforcement to charge victims of sexual assault for lesser offenses, such as underage drinking. Before the passing of the Sexual Assault Victim Amnesty Bill however, members of SART could never promise victims that they wouldn’t be charged if they chose to report.

“It’s kind of always been an unspoken rule that you should address the biggest concern, not the fact that they had a drink,” Marlow said. “But because it was never mandated, it’s never been set in stone, there was always that possibility.”

While there is still a long way to go when it comes to the fight against sexual assault and rape culture on college campuses, McNiff said that the passing of this bill is a huge step forward.

“There’s a hundred reasons why people don’t come forward,” McNiff said. “But to knock one of them out at a time is good enough for now.”