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Editorial: Making a statement for sexual assault awareness

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so perhaps it is appropriate that it wasn't until the calendar turned to the final days of the Maryland General Assembly 2018 session that a game-changing piece of legislation that gives the state the ability to introduce acts of previous sexually deviant behavior as evidence in court was approved.

Known as the Repeat Sexual Predator Prevention Act, House Bill 301 passed both chambers unanimously last week. Gov. Larry Hogan had expressed his support for similar legislation earlier in the session, and will likely sign the bill into law.

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Currently, prosecutors may not introduce evidence of prior sexual predatory behavior during criminal trials of alleged sex offenders when the defendant claims the act was consensual or that the accuser is lying, unless the victim is the same person as in the previous acts.

Both House and Senate versions of the bill received committee hearings early in the session, but seemed destined to die there, as similar legislation had in the past. But tweaks to the language to make it more palatable to those worried about infringing on the rights of the accused and still give prosecutors another tool in their tool belt to get sexual predators off the streets earned committee approval last month, and approval of the House version of the bill in both chambers last week. A judge would conduct a hearing outside the presence of a jury to determine first whether such evidence would be admitted.

Maryland law is now more in line with federal standards, where since the mid-1990s, courts have allowed evidence be admitted of prior bad acts and accusations in sexual offense and child molestation cases if its probative value outweighed the unfair prejudice to the defendant.

Sexual assault is far more common than most people realize. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, about 1 in 6 women will experience a sexual assault at some point in their life.

In Carroll, the Board of County Commissioners last week read a proclamation declaring April Sexual Assault Awareness Month. "We encourage our community to work together to educate about what can be done to prevent sexual violence and how to support our survivors. Staff, the Board of Trustees, and volunteers of Rape Crisis Intervention Service encouraging every person to speak out when witnessing an act of violence. Through prevention education, increased awareness, and holding perpetrators who commit act of violence responsible for their actions, we can be successful in reducing sexual violence in Carroll County," the proclamation reads.

Our elected leaders at the state and county level have made their statement regarding sexual assault, now it's your turn. We encourage you to do so by participating in the annual Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event this Saturday, April 14. Registration is at 10 a.m. and the walk starts at 11. Walk a Mile is a fundraiser for Rape Crisis Intervention Services of Carroll County, which works locally to help reduce sexual violence here and connect survivors with appropriate services. Male participants will literally walk down Main Street in Westminster in women's shoes and heels, creating a visual that certainly will draw some attention and hopefully, spark a conversation.

"It's kind of funny to see them all walking down Main Street, but it shows that they care," RCIS CEO Janice Kispert told us. "It gives men a chance to get involved and make a powerful statement."

Anyone who wishes to participate in the walk may do so by registering online at www.walkamilecc.org until Thursday or register the day of the event at Westminster's Dutterer Park at 10 a.m. Each walker needs to raise at least $50.

Editor's note: If you or someone you know has questions or needs help regarding a sexual assault, RCIS staffs a 24-hour hotline at 410-857-7322.



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