VIRGINIA'S LEGISLATURE during this session will consider a measure that would overhaul completely the state's rape laws. It takes nothing away from the proposed bill to note that, comprehensive as it is, it merely follows a well-established legal and social trend. Within the past decade nearly all of the 50 states have revised their laws on rape to specify other types of sexual assaults and their degree of seriousness, to fit more closely the punishment to the crime and to remove the stigma that in the past was too often put on the victims of such attacks. The Maryland General Assembly, which revised that state's laws in 1976, is looking at additional refinements. And the D.C. Law Revision Commission is drafting such legislation for the City Council's review in 1979. Now, it's Virginia's turn.
The result of an exhaustive study by the Virginia State Crime Commission, the proposed measure divides sexual assault into four different categories, depending on whether the attack involved sex or only contact and the type and amount of force involved. The penalties range from five years to life in prison for first-degree sex offenses to less than one and no more than five years in prison for fourth-degree offenses. The proposed law stipulates that the testimony of the victim alone can be sufficient for conviction and that, ordinarily, the victim's past sexual conduct isn't admissible evidence. And under the proposed bill, the law would be sexually neutral: Attacks on men and women would be subject to the same penalties. In short, the bill rightly would shift the emphasis of the law from sexuality to violence.
Some provisions of the measure are likely to provoke sharp debate: It eliminates marriage as a defense against a charge of sexual assault. And it makes subject to charges persons who use their "position of authority," such as the employer of the victim, to gain sexual favors.These provisions are rightly included; neither status constitutes a license to rape or otherwise sexually assault another person. Several of the state's prosecutors already have said the bill would cause a "total uprooting" of the law that could lead to more rape convictions being overturned on appeal because of technical errors. The concern is a valid one; but Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), one of the bill's chief sponsors, said it could be met by state officials taking steps to ensure that judges and prosecutors are well acquainted with the measure, when and if it becomes law. Officials in other states have done this by holding seminars on the law for judges and prosecutors.
The crime commission is in the process of drafting several other recommendations that deal with ways to prevent the incidence of sexual assault as well as deal with its aftermath. They include better training for law officials and rehabilitative programs for sex offenders. Again, these ideas have been tried and are working elsewhere. Virginia is a latecomer in this area, but the proposed law, though specific provisions may need some fine-tuning, is a good starting point.