Making rape expensive: Why this campus assault bill is a model for cracking down everywhere

Congress may finally move to punish schools that ignore rape. Here's why prisons need the same standards

Published January 5, 2015 4:29PM (EST)

Kirsten Gillibrand          (Jeff Malet,
Kirsten Gillibrand (Jeff Malet,

The 114th Congress promises to be a total disaster, but the Campus Accountability and Safety Act might be the rare proposal to receive bipartisan consensus in the new session. Among its other provisions, the bill would level harsher penalties against colleges and universities that fail to address sexual violence on campus. “We’re looking at a variety of things, including larger fines,” Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill said last year. “I feel very strongly that fines would need to be based on the size of the institution.” Discussing the penalty, New York. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand noted that an institution like Harvard could be fined up to $4 million. Larger schools would face larger penalties. All institutions would face stiffer ones. Indifference to sexual assault, often a default posture among colleges and universities, would potentially become very, very expensive.

A similar enforcement mechanism -- using funding cuts as a blunt instrument -- was what gave the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) its teeth. Passed in 2003, the measure required increased staff training to prevent and properly report sexual assault and rape and other anti-violence protocols like providing victims rape kits. States that failed to comply would lose 5 percent of their federal funding for prisons.

But a proposal being reintroduced this year by a Republican member of the House would eliminate most of the financial penalties for noncompliance, a move advocates say would defang the act, effectively rendering it meaningless. Currently, seven states have opted out entirely while more than 40 other states report working to come into compliance. But the federal body behind PREA has expressed “grave concern” that, should Texas Rep. Jon Cornyn’s measure pass, implementation would become impossible.

“But those assurances [of future compliance] will become hollow -- and states and territories may not make them -- absent the threat of financial penalties for failure to become compliant,” the PREA Commission wrote last year. These concerns are shared by many who were assaulted while incarcerated and advocates for the rights of people who are incarcerated, but others in the anti-rape movement support the move to reduce financial penalties.

From the Associated Press:

Nearly two dozen organizations, including prison industry groups and the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, have lauded Cornyn's efforts, and say they trust prison officials to work vigorously at reducing rapes even without financial penalties.

"There's no desire to do anything less than help victims," said Rebecca O'Connor, RAINN's vice president of public policy, adding that her organization just wants to make sure the law is applied in a way that doesn't harm existing programs.

According to federal statistics, more than 200,000 people are sexually assaulted while incarcerated each year. More than half of all sexual assaults behind bars are committed by people working in the prison. These numbers have been consistent for nearly a decade, and show that young people, mentally ill people and LGBTQ people are the most vulnerable to this kind of violence while incarcerated.

Advocates behind the law fear that change, which has already come too slowly, won’t come at all should Cornyn’s measure pass. “Any weakening of the financial penalties reduces the incentive to fully comply with PREA,” the commission wrote last year. It's a strange set of circumstances, given the unprecedented awareness of the problem of sexual assault and the failure of institutions to address that problem. If reports about the political agenda for 2015 prove correct, Congress will consider the bill to defang PREA by removing financial penalties at the same time it weighs stiffer penalties for colleges and universities that have proved to be equally indifferent to the violence taking place under its watch.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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