Sexual Assault Legislation in the Aftermath of Brock Turner and Bill Cosby
Following public outcry after the lenient sentencing of Brock Turner and the failure to prosecute Bill Cosby, California has adopted several pieces of landmark legislation addressing sexual assault. All signed by Governor Jerry Brown, California Senate Bill 813 and Assembly Bills 701 and 2888 will institute new definitions, sentencing provisions, and statutory limitations relating to sexual assault cases. These bills go into effect on January 1, 2017, and will have a dramatic effect on the criminal justice process surrounding cases of sexual assault in California.
The first piece of legislation will change the way that sexual assault is defined in the California justice system. Under federal law, rape is predicated upon penetration, and sexual assault is a separate umbrella term for non-consensual sexual acts. The main criticism of the existing federal definition of sexual assault is that it is too broad, while the definition of rape is too restrictive. California Assembly Bill 701 will essentially reverse the national definition, allowing courts to consider “all forms of nonconsensual sexual assault a form of rape.” This will significantly affect survivors of sexual assault by broadening the support available to them. Organizations and resources allocated to support survivors of rape will be expanded to encompass survivors of all types of sexual assault.
California Senate Bill 813 will eliminate the statute of limitations for sexual assault cases. This means that prosecutors will be able to bring legal action against suspects of sexual assault without time limits imposed from the time of the crime. Despite overwhelming support from lawmakers, the bill did not receive the same blessing from some interest groups. According to the Los Angeles Times, neither the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) nor the California Public Defenders Associate support this bill. These groups believe that the provision would not necessarily impact sexual assault reporting because it does not address the problems of under prosecution and distrust of the police. Legislators have defended this bill saying that it is essential because it tells “every rape and sexual assault victim in California that they matter.”
Subsequently, legislators also passed a bill instituting a mandatory minimum sentence for offenders convicted of sexual assault. California Assembly Bill 2888 prohibits judges from offering probation or suspending sentencing in cases where the victim is intoxicated or unconscious. Brown signed this provision amid his own efforts to overturn existing mandatory minimum sentencing laws in California. Many like Brown have criticized mandatory minimum sentencing laws on the national level for the disproportionate effects that they tend to have on underprivileged and minority groups. The Governor has stood by this provision for mandatory minimum sentencing in sexual assault cases saying that it would bring about “a measure of parity to sentencing for criminal acts that are substantially similar.” While this bill may close the gap of sentencing disparities by eliminating a more lenient option, it could also result in disproportionately harsher sentences for offenders from marginalized groups.
Each of these bills will have drastic consequences on the future of sexual assault in California. Beginning in 2017, the California criminal justice system will undergo major changes in the way that it structurally handles sexual assault offenders. Legislators remain hopeful that these changes with support survivors and equalize the treatment of offenders in sexual assault cases. Skeptics, however, still believe that marginalized offenders will be disproportionately affected, and that these measures will do little to address underlying issues with the prosecution of sexual assault. Ultimately, following controversial cases and media attention, it was inevitable that California legislation begin to address some of the issues posed by the public. We will not know the outcome of this legislation for many years, but hopefully with California as a model, other states will begin addressing problems with existing sexual assault legislation as well.
U.S. Department of Justice, “An Updated Definition of Rape”. (2014, September 15). https://www.justice.gov/opa/blog/updated-definition-rape
 California State Legislature, “Bill Text – AB-701 Sex crimes: Rape”. (2016, September 30). https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201520160AB701
 Senator Connie M. Leyva. (2016, September 28). Governor Brown Signs “Justice for Victims Act”.
 McGreevy, P. (2016, June 30). Lawmakers take step toward eliminating statute of limitations. http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-sac-essential-politics-state-senate-votes-to-eliminat-1464806279-htmlstory.html
 Ibid 4
 California State Legislature, “Bill Text – AB- 2888 Sex Crimes: Mandatory Prison Sentence”. (2016, September 30). https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201520160AB2888
Kreps, D. (2016, September 30). California Governor Signs Law Enforcing Mandatory Prison for Sexual Assaults.http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/california-passes-law-enforcing-mandatory-prison-for-sexual-assaults-w442950
It is heartening to hear that in California and in other states legislators are taking on the thorny task of legislating against sexual assault. This “top-down” approach is certainly necessary.
However, I do wonder how much more work needs to be done from the “bottom up.” How can we, as concerned citizens, educate one another about issues of consent? How can we norm respect? Too often victims are blamed and excuses are made. In many ways it is ultimately up to us to create an environment where sexual assault is not only abhorrent in the eyes of the law, but it is also abhorrent to each and every one of us.