California lawmakers set up independent panel to handle sexual harassment complaints

Recent high-profile sexual harassment cases in the state Capitol have led the California legislature to modify its policies and re-examine the way misconduct complaints are handled.

On June 25, a panel of lawmakers approved a new policy that involves setting up an independent unit in the legislative counsel’s office. Five outside experts will now be responsible for reviewing sexual harassment complaints filed by alleged victims. They will then recommend disciplinary action. However, Senate and Assembly lawmakers will still have the final say on how their colleagues and staffers are punished, whether it is through undergoing more training or termination.

The previous process for handling complaints has been criticized for being vague and sometimes biased against victims, who would have to file their claim with a committee of legislators. In addition, the Senate and Assembly had two different procedures, which created confusion.

The policy change is an effort to ease concerns about lawmakers’ loyalties to each other impacting their handling of misconduct allegations. Many victims said they were reluctant to report harassment because they assumed lawmakers would not punish their colleagues or employees.

The new policy is likely to be enforced by February 2019, almost a year and a half after more than a hundred women who work in politics wrote an open letter calling out a pervasive culture of sexual harassment in the Capitol. The letter led to a spike in complaints, scrutiny of the legislature’s policies and the resignation of three lawmakers accused of various sexual misconduct over the past year.

We Said Enough, the nonprofit organization that was founded with the letter’s publication, welcomed the policy change and said it would monitor its effectiveness. Ultimately, what matters is that legislative leaders consistently and strictly enforce their policies for handling sexual harassment complaints even after the issue is no longer in the public spotlight.

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