Remarks as Prepared
Good afternoon, everyone. I am pleased to welcome you to this event in observance of National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Thank you to Kristen Clarke, the Assistant Attorney General of our Civil Rights Division; to Allison Randall, the Principal Deputy Director of our Office on Violence Against Women; and the dedicated teams from both components for bringing us together for this important conversation.
The department is committed to expanding access to justice for survivors, to holding perpetrators accountable, and strengthening our response to sexual assault and sexual harassment.
We recently celebrated a major milestone in these efforts: the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, which was signed into law by President Biden last month.
I worked on the original VAWA legislation as a Senate staffer in the 1990s. That legislation, importantly for the first time, among other things recognized that sexual harassment, assault and misconduct often go unreported and, even when they are reported, they are often met with doubt and disbelief – particularly for victims from marginalized communities.
VAWA proved though, that a law could make a real difference in people’s lives, and it helped change the national conversation around sexual assault and domestic violence. We knew even then, however, that there was a lot more work to be done, and the new tools and resources included in this year’s reauthorization are critical to modernizing our efforts to prevent and to end these crimes. That includes critical new tools to address sexual misconduct through our civil rights laws.
Prior to VAWA’s reauthorization, most sexual assaults committed under color of law were misdemeanors punishable by less than one year in prison. And because these offenses disproportionately affect women, including transgender women, it left a large portion of the population without a way to fully vindicate their rights.
VAWA brought parity also to sentencing by converting sexual assaults into felonies, subject to penalties commensurate with the egregious nature of the misconduct.
VAWA also closed a major loophole in federal law, making it a strict liability crime for federal law enforcement officers to engage in sexual conduct with those in their custody. In other words, VAWA now codifies into law what should have always been obvious: there is no such thing as “consent” to sexual acts between federal officers and those held in their custody.
During today’s conversation, you’ll hear more from Assistant Attorney General Clarke about how the changes in VAWA strengthen our ability to vindicate victims’ rights, as well as about the important civil enforcement initiatives that the Civil Rights Division is pursuing in the workplace, in public education institutions, in housing complexes, and in state-run jails and other facilities.
Of course, in addition to our work holding perpetrators accountable, the department also provides essential services that support healing and safety for survivors of sexual assault.
Our Office on Violence Against Women provides critical funding for projects and programs that meaningfully and compassionately address sexual violence. OVW’s Sexual Assault Services Program, for example, reaches every state and territory, and supports rape crisis centers and other programs that provide services to survivors and their families. This funding is essential to provide sexual assault patients with the healthcare they need post-assault and to collect evidence of their sexual assault.
During today’s event, we look forward to sharing in more detail how OVW, the Civil Rights Division and the entire Department of Justice is committed to redressing sexual harassment, assault and misconduct. We are grateful that you have joined us for this important discussion. Thank you.