A local legislator is seeking to provide victims of gender-based violence with new means to seek redress in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

The Violence Against Women Act, introduced by Assemblymember Hannah-Beth Jackson, passed the state assembly’s Judiciary Committee April 9 and moved to the floor of the state assembly. The bill would better enable victims of sexual assault and domestic violence to bring civil suits against their assailants by establishing gender-based violence as a class of criminal behavior, and extending the statute of limitations for civil claims.

The bill was based on a similar provision of the federal Violence Against Women Act, which was overturned by the Supreme Court. According to Jackson, the court ruled 5-4 that the authority to enact this provision was in the hands of the states.

“This is based on the federal act, which was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. They felt that the federal government was exceeding authority and jurisdiction shouldn’t be a blanket decision; it should come from each state,” she said.

Beth McGovern, the legislative director for the California National Organization of Women, said while sexual assault and domestic violence victims can currently file civil claims against their attackers, the new bill would provide additional help by increasing statute of limitations to 10 years after the crime is committed.

McGovern said the burden of proof in criminal court usually falls heavily on the victim who, due to the trauma associated with the crime, may take many months before taking action and often lacks the evidence necessary to successfully prosecute.

“Generally speaking it is a little bit easier to prove these kind of cases in civil court,” she said. “There are situations where the available evidence will not be sufficient in a criminal prosecution but in a civil case will be enough to be successful.”

By extending the statute of limitations, the bill would also enable more victims to obtain compensation, Jackson said.

“We’re talking about the right to sue in federal court, and to get compensation for financial and psychological damages,” she said. “Most students are not able to pay those damages, but the bill expands the opportunity for victims to sue and collect damages. The thought is that within a few years after college the perpetrators have established themselves financially and the victim can collect appropriate retribution.”

By grouping together gender-based crimes, Jackson said the bill also helps counteract the epidemic of violence against women.

“On the theory that perpetrators of gender-based violence have multiple victims, if we can intensify criminal prosecution and identify perpetrators civilly, hopefully we will be able to discourage these behaviors,” Jackson said. “Violence against women is at epidemic levels in our society, and this law sends a clear message that violence against women is a serious criminal offense and will be taken seriously.

Carol Mosely, the Rape Prevention Education Program coordinator at UCSB’s Women’s Center, said the bill brings the necessary attention to the prevalent community problem of sexual violence against women.

“There are between 400-500 sexual assaults in this community every year, so this is not an isolated event. It is important to realize that the best way to address a problem as big as sexual assault is by attempting to remedy the problem from a variety of perspectives,” she said. “This offers an option. The more options a person has the better … I hope this will work to serve as a deterrent.”

Anyone interested in more information can contact the Rape Prevention Education Program located in the Women’s Center at 893-3773 or call the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center’s 24-hour hotline at 564-3696. Both are free and confidential, and open to men and women and friends and family of survivors.