Rape victims across the country can be arrested and held if authorities worry they won’t cooperate in criminal cases. A watchdog group in New Orleans wants to stop that practice in its area.
Court Watch NOLA, a justice advocacy group, called on the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office to stop detaining victims of sexual assault as material witnesses. The group said authorities should take into consideration the trauma already experienced by a victim and refrain from putting them in jail, an experience that will cause further stress.
Authorities arrest people as material witnesses when they are concerned the person will not appear in court or will refuse to testify in a case. According to Court Watch NOLA, out of 30 material witness warrants in Orleans Parish in 2016, half were issued for witnesses of crimes and half for victims. In one case examined by the group, a woman who alleged she had been raped was arrested and kept in jail for eight days.
Other victims across the country have endured the same thing. According to the Oregonian, a former inmate at an Oregon prison was jailed last year while awaiting trial against a former corrections officer at the facility, who was accused of sexual misconduct. The woman, who said she spent two years in the mental health unit at Oregon’s women’s prison, was detained by a judge because of her criminal and drug use history. She was in chains at the hearing where the judge determined she must be kept in custody.
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A Texas woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia was jailed for more than a month because prosecutors were afraid she wouldn’t come back to court. As she was testifying in the trial against her accused rapist, she had a psychological breakdown and was afterward committed to a psychiatric ward. When she was released from the hospital, she was taken into police custody in 2015.
She was released — with a black eye, according to the Houston Chronicle — and months later filed a lawsuit alleging that she was abused and attacked by both other inmates and jailers. Days before being released, she had appeared in court and testified against her accused rapist. He was convicted and sentenced to two life sentences.
In Washington, a woman who had allegedly been kidnapped by her ex-boyfriend was forced to perform sexual favors on another man. According to the the Daily News, that man tried to rape her but she escaped by running through the woods. Prosecutors got a material witness warrant because she had skipped several scheduled pre-trial meetings. She was held in jail overnight but then released, with a judge warning her that another warrant would be issued if prosecutes had trouble getting in touch with her again.
“If (material witness warrants) are being issued, even in just a handful of cases, what message are you sending to other victims of sexual assault?” Geneva Brown, a professor at Valparaiso University, told the Advocate. “Other victims may not come forward if they know this is how they’re going to be treated.”