What's Being Done About Missoula, Montana's Reputation As "Rape Capital?"

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You've probably never heard of Missoula, Mont. Its innocuous reputation as a mildly bohemian town covers up its horrendous record of reported sexual assaults — more than 350 between January 2008 and May 2012 alone, hence its nickname of "rape capital." What's more, when it comes to these sexual assaults, U.S. Department of Justice says local city officials actively used "sex-based stereotypes" to discriminate against the women that reported rape.

The damning facts have been uncovered in a investigation by journalist Dana Liebelson in a report for Mother Jones, in which Liebelson explains the context to the DOJ's condemnation. It was back in March 2012 that the University of Montana found itself under scrutiny for the way it handled assault allegations against six members of the University's football team.

"The players were accused of committing, attempting, or helping cover up sexual assault between 2009 and 2012," reports Liebelson. Yet it did not appear that justice was being done. After the coach and athletic director were both fired, Attorney General Eric Holder decided to launch a federal investigation into just how exactly city officials had pursued the very serious allegations against the footballers. By May 2013, the DOJ had released its report confirming that Missoula officials were "discriminating against female victims in sexual-assault cases."

But as if being exposed for discriminating against sexual assault victims wasn't enough, the Missoula County Attorney's Office is now refusing to do anything to help combat the city's sex-assault record. As Liebelson reports, the Department of Justice made recommendations to the County Attorney's Office, which included hiring an advocate for victims of assault, more training for county supervisors and prosecutors, and better collection of data on sexual assault cases, including victims' feedback. And the response?

Last week, the county's chief prosecutor rejected the offer and told the feds to take a hike, insisting they have no authority to tell his office what to do: "The DOJ is clearly overstepping in the investigation of my office," Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg tells Mother Jones. "The Missoula Police Department and our office have done a very good job of handling sexual-assault allegations regardless of what national and local news accounts may indicate."

Leaving the matter of actual justice and human rights aside for a second, it's baffling why city officials in such a parlous state would think this is the right move. Unfortunately, this is pretty indicative of the state of attitudes towards rape in the United States, a country where an estimated 54 per cent of rapes are never reported, where 97 per cent of rapists are never incarcerated. And in Missoula, it's taken years to properly investigate all of the injustices done to the hundreds of recorded victims who were asked questions such as why they did not fight harder against their attackers.

So if the Justice Department fails to make change happen in Missoula, what will? Missoula Attorney General Van Valkenburg claims the Justice Department cannot legally force his department to make the changes, which is true. But as Liebelson reports: "If the Justice Department is able to prove civil rights violations in court, a judge could enforce them."

Let's hope Missoula city officials get the justice they deserve.

*A previous version of this story claimed that Missoula has the highest rape statistics, which is false. Also, the version claimed Missoula's police department has failed to follow through with the Department of Justice's recommended changes to help combat the city's sexual assault record — a criticism that, per Dana Liebelson's Mother Jones article, should be directed towards Missoula's County Attorney. Furthermore, allegations of sexual assault by six football players were not reported five years ago, as was stated as the original article, but at various points in the last four years. We regret these errors. 

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