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Sunday, May 09, 2021

Crime survivors feel re-victimized by the Wisconsin justice system

"There is no better thing to talk about this week than Marsy's Law," Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, said during a National Crime Victims’ Rights week press conference in the Senate Chambers Tuesday. 

With increased state recognition after Gov. Tony Evers proclaimed April as Sexual Assault Awareness month –– noting one in three women and one in six men will experience sexual assault –– crime survivors worked with grassroots organizations to urge legislators to constitutionally ensure greater protections and a more victim-centric approach to the justice system.

Marsy’s Law for Wisconsin organizers, authors of Assembly Joint Resolution 1 and Senate Joint Resolution 2, the Wisconsin Court Appointed Special Advocates and Attorney General Josh Kaul spoke out in support of survivors to help push the bills onto the legislative floor during Tuesday’s press conference. 

The proposed legislation would protect crime victims by keeping information like their names, phone numbers and addresses private, as well as improving transparency about their perpetrators’ sentencing status and allowing them to refuse interview requests by the accused. 

“At Marsy's Law what we are trying to do is even the playing ground –– we are not looking for any special treatment. We are just looking for equal treatment for victims,” Marsy’s Law chair and survivor Teri Jendusa Nicolai said. “Our rights right now are statutory, we need to make them constitutional.”

Marsy’s Law is a coalition that builds communities for crime victims and legislators alike, aiming to give survivors equal rights as the ones accused throughout the justice system process.

Survivors shared their stories and explained how current laws made them feel victimized by the justice system for allowing the accused to have power over them once again.

“I was granted a no contact order, but to get it I had to give the man that had violated me all of my personal information. He had everything,” Gabrielle Stathus said about her sexual assault trial against her 8th grade teacher. “When I was hospitalized with a chronic illness, his defense attorney would call to check on my status.” 

Gabrielle’s perpetrator was given a plea deal, lowering his initial sentencing from 40 years to six months. In the end, without the say of Gabrielle who was only allowed to speak in the courtroom on one occasion, the the trial never happened. 

He served only 90 days in prison.  

“I started this journey as a powerless child and it ended in being a powerless adult with nowhere left to turn,” Gabrielle said. “Victimized and forgotten by the justice system.” 

Survivors like Gabrielle are connected to Marsy’s Law through various outreach programs and events. Survivor and advocate Christina Traub said that organizing for Marsy’s Law can help victims get on the path to become survivors. 

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“Giving victims a voice seemed like some insurmountable task when we started,” Traub said. “In the two years that I’ve been involved, any time that I share my story, along the way someone stops me and says, ‘Thank you. Thank you for speaking up when we couldn’t.’”

Affiliates of Marsy’s Law expressed the difficulties about coming forward after any kind of assault, highlighting the constant presence of sexual assault victims due to the widespread occurrence. 

Kate Thalacker, victim and witness coordinator at Marsy’s Law, said that support for advocacy efforts has increased since the rise of the #MeToo movement, allowing victims within the organization to find solidarity.

Although she says sexual assault rates have not necessarily gone up, the movement has helped decrease the stigma surrounding coming forward –– no matter how long after the assault the victim chooses to.

“I think that with the safety and the safe space that everyone is creating through the #MeToo movement gives people the chance to say, ‘Hey, that's something that happened to me and I want support with it,’” Thalacker said.

Although Sexual Assault Awareness month makes now a great time to advocate for crime victims’ rights, Kaul said it is also important to work towards a victim-centric approach to the justice system year-round and with a wider scope –– alluding to a necessary increase of funding. 

Kaul believes the addition of a state-funded prosecutor dedicated to prosecuting in sexual assault cases, and also assisting with investigations and training, would support this initiative. Evers proposed this position in his biennial budget. 

“Justice isn't just about punishing people who break the law. It’s also about making sure that we're doing what we can to help make victims and their families whole,” Kaul said. “I think it’s important that we move forward with this and I am hopeful that this will have broad support from both chambers of the legislature.”

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