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October 25, 2014

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Some states won’t comply with federal prison anti-rape law

BOISE, Idaho — Several states are refusing to comply with a federal law designed to reduce sexual assaults in prison, with governors criticizing the decade-old law as counterproductive and too expensive to implement.

The governors of Idaho, Texas, Indiana, Utah and Arizona have informed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that they won't try to meet the standards required under the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Governors were required to certify by May 15 that their states either met the standards designed to curb widespread sexual abuse behind bars, or to promise that they were actively working toward that goal.

"Idaho supports the spirit and intention of PREA and the National PREA Standards, but a law with good intent has evolved into a law with too much red tape," Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter wrote in a letter to Holder sent five days after the deadline. It would cost the state millions of dollars to meet some of the standards, Otter said, and he believed the cost would have little ultimate benefit. Besides, the governor said, the state has taken substantial steps to reduce sexual victimization in correctional facilities.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry told Holder in April that his state wouldn't comply because the rules were too costly and violated states' rights. Perry's letter also encouraged other states to reject the federal law, and said that instead, his state would continue the programs it already has to reduce prison rapes.

Brenda Smith, a former commissioner on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission which helped create the PREA standards, said the decision by some states to opt out is shameful.

"These are not some high falutin', unreachable standards. These are things that are constitutional, based on best practices that have been determined in the field and in the courts," Smith said. "As a state you can move over to the sidelines, but people in custody don't get to move over to the sidelines. Providing them safety from sexual abuse is the minimum we can do."

At least nine more states — New York, Ohio, California, Washington, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Colorado, Mississippi and Illinois — have said that they can't meet all the requirements yet, but are actively working toward that goal. New Mexico says it's fully compliant with the law.

Leaders of Just Detention International, an organization that works to end sexual abuse in detention facilities, said they were encouraged that most states are working toward PREA compliance.

"We want actual certifications to be meaningful, so states should certify only when they know that they are in full compliance," said the organization's executive director Lovisa Stannow in a prepared statement. "Until then, the Department of Justice must strictly monitor states to ensure that they are using their federal funds appropriately. No state should be meeting its five percent financial commitment by diverting funds away from essential inmate services like rape crisis counseling - doing so would run counter to the intent of PREA."

The Prison Rape Elimination Act was passed unanimously by Congress in 2003. The next several years were spent developing PREA standards, and in 2012 those rules went into effect. The Department of Justice is expected to publish a list of PREA-compliant states by September.

The major provisions of PREA are designed to change the culture of prisons to one that has zero tolerance for sexual victimization; to change prison facilities so that there are fewer opportunities for rape to occur; and to change reporting policies so that inmates have a safe way to report a crime and a safe place to go if they are sexually victimized.

The law's only enforcement mechanism is a partial loss of grant funding. States that don't comply with PREA can lose up to 5 percent of the federal grant money they receive for corrections. States can keep the money if they promise to use it to come into compliance with the law.

The potential human impact is huge: The Department of Justice says that at least 216,000 of U.S. prisoners were raped or sexually abused behind bars in 2011, and cautions that the number is likely low, because prison rapes are seldom reported. The ACLU estimates that about 2 million people have been raped or sexually abused behind bars since PREA was enacted by Congress.

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