Pulling the Teeth from the Prison Rape Elimination Act Delay, defy, defang
When the United Nations Committee Against Torture appraised America’s justice system in 2006, it had special praise for the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a 2003 law that called for “zero-tolerance” toward sexual abuse in detention facilities and established a set of standards to prevent and respond to sexual abuse.
That international admiration has now soured into disappointment. In its latest report, released last Friday, the committee cited, among other shortcomings of American criminal justice, the “widespread prevalence of sexual violence” against American prisoners, and the failure of states to put the rape law into practice. According to the most recent estimates by the federal government, nearly 200,000 people were sexually abused in American detention facilities in 2011, largely unchanged since the first survey in 2007. After more than a decade of bureaucratic lethargy, rape elimination is not in sight.
And the U.N. did not mention a quiet effort underway to make the law even less effective by eliminating its only enforcement mechanism.
PREA required states to certify by May of 2014 that they were in compliance with the standards, or promise that they would eventually comply. States that refuse to do either can be penalized with a loss of five percent of their federal funding for prison-related purposes. But a proposal that originated in the Senate Judiciary Committee would almost completely eliminate financial penalties for states that defy the rape prevention law. The proposal, written by Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas — the most vocally defiant state — was agreed on by the committee in an after-midnight session in September and was attached to an unrelated bill.
The bill carrying the PREA amendment failed to pass, but members of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, a federal body that spent years developing the PREA standards, say efforts are already underway to reintroduce the amendment during the next legislative session.