New Brighton lawmaker backs bill on missing and murdered Indigenous women


State Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein District 41B

Multiple bills moving through the Minnesota Legislature take aim at addressing gender-based violence.

Measures zero in on laws for sex crimes and putting resources toward studying the state’s missing and murdered indigenous women.

As lawmakers highlighted those topics during a “gender-based violence week” in late January and early February, area legislators were behind many of the bills.

Two bills from state Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein of New Brighton got hearings in the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee on Jan. 29 and 30.

The first was a bill to launch a task force on missing and murdered Indigenous women. The group would study the causes, gauge the scope and make recommendations for prevention.

“This is a tragedy that has happened through historic times,” said Kunesh-Podein, the DFLer representing District 41B. “And it hasn’t gotten the attention or the compassion that it should have gotten over these times.”

She highlighted a report that found of the 5,712 cases of  missing or murdered Indigenous women reported in 2016, just 116 were logged in a U.S. Department of Justice database. The report concluded, as other studies and reports have, that incomplete or mis-recorded data kept by law enforcement across the country fails to record the prevalence of missing and murdered women in the Native American and Indigenous communities.

Committee members heard gripping testimony from women whose relatives experienced violence, and who experienced violence themselves.

Mysti Babineau, a member of the Red Lake Nation, shared her story of the violence she endured in life. And while widespread attention on the subject is recent, cases like hers are not.

“This is not something new,” Babineau said. “This is not something just brought in by the pipelines. Five hundred [years] we’ve been waiting for this. My sisters, my people have gone missing since European settlers set land here on Turtle Island. It’s time for justice. It’s time for healing.”

Kunesh-Podein’s bill has a Senate companion from state Sen. Patricia Torres, DFL-Minneapolis. Legislatures in North Dakota and Montana are considering similar measures this year.

 

‘Buttocks bill’

On Jan. 30, the same committee heard the so-called “buttocks bill.” Also sponsored by Kunesh-Podein, the bill would amend the state statute regarding fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct to include touching a person in the area of a clothed buttocks.

Currently, Minnesota law specifically exempts this act from being a crime.

“Unfortunately, there was this very intentional exclusion in the law and we need everything we can this year to make sure that is included as a misdemeanor,” Kunesh-Podein said during the hearing.

She read from the written testimony of an Anoka County woman, Jessica Goodwin, who was at a gym with her family in 2017 when a man groped her on the buttocks and walked away. Goodwin learned that four other women were assaulted by the man in the same day, but he only faced one count of disorderly conduct due to the law’s exemption, according to the testimony.

“This is something that I’ve also seen in my career as a prosecutor,” said state Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL, Shoreview. “There was a man at the state fairground that had done this a number of years ago in a case that we tried to prosecute. And again, he was able to escape liability because the law is written this way.”

This bill also has a Senate counterpart, this time from Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville.

 

Other bills

Other measures had committee hearings on Feb. 7. They included Kunesh-Podein’s equal rights amendment, which would specify in the Minnesota Constitution that equal rights cannot be violated on the basis of gender.

Moller’s bill to amend the state’s sexual harassment definition was also heard on on Feb. 7 and passed a House committee.

Another Moller bill moving through the Legislature is aimed at strengthening law enforcement policies for handling sexual assault investigations.

 

–Matt Hudson can be reached at mhudson@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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