Changes come with a price
On its face, a new set of federal guidelines for prosecuting sexual assault cases at schools seems necessary, if not overdue.
But any heaping of praise upon these changes shouldn’t go without a deeper conversation about the risks of lowering the standard of proof for these cases.
The Department of Education did implement some commendable changes, such as those mandating that both parties have the right to an appeal, that staff are properly trained for sexual assault cases and that the University provide victims counseling.
But one rule — to reduce the burden of proof on the accuser — could jeopardize everything else, no matter its merits on the surface.
With the changes, UNC’s Honor Court must now abide by a preponderance of evidence standard in sexual assault cases, meaning that the accuser must prove only that it’s more likely the crime happened than not.
That’s it. All prosecutors need is a 51 percent likelihood of guilt. No hard evidence, no worries.
UNC previously required proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a much stricter burden of proof and the one used in criminal trials.
Morgan Abbott, the Honor Court’s vice chairwoman, said she supports the change because it will encourage more students to seek help.
The reasonable doubt standard discourages reporting because many victims think they won’t win and don’t want to relive their pain only to lose the case.
Abbott’s is a commendable ideal, but it has a dark side. If the burden of proof for criminal courts remains the same while the burden of proof for on-campus hearings is reduced, it stands to reason that many victims will turn to the Honor Court rather than police.
Two cases on the same crime could be incredibly draining, and it could be tantalizing to only go for the more certain win.
This has two negative potential outcomes: The first is that innocent students could be wrongly convicted, as sexual assault cases are often very complicated and hazy because emotions run high — and substances are often involved.
The second is that abusers could get away with their horrific acts with a mere slap on the wrist. Yes, they might have to miss a year or more at UNC. But they can always enroll somewhere else, get a job, travel or do any number of things that don’t involve going to jail.
Because of UNC policies giving victims maximum agency, not to mention a severely misguided interpretation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, sexual assaults will permanently stay part of an “educational record” as long as that student doesn’t report the crime to police.
We shouldn’t just help the victim; we also need to fully punish the guilty. Current standards, with the potential for the guilty to get off relatively free, aren’t what survivors of sexual violence deserve.