Justice Unlocked senior staff attorney Michael LoPrete said he wants people to feel like they have access to the justice system when dealing with issues of sexual assault.
“I think it’s important to demystify the legal process,” he said. “I think there’s a real access-to-justice problem.”
Justice Unlocked is a local nonprofit that offers legal aid on a sliding-scale basis for people who do not qualify for free legal services but cannot afford a standard attorney fee.
The organization presented a seminar on legal matters related to sexual assault and domestic violence Monday to a small group at the Monroe County Public Library.
LoPrete discussed issues like rape culture, definitions of sexual assault and sexual violence, protective orders, and resources for victims of sexual assault at the seminar.
Deputy development director Lasserina Dowell said she wanted to have members of the community discuss the issue of sexual assault and to inform the public of available resources.
“It just gets the conversation going, and really the purpose of it is just to educate the public on their rights and what resources there are,” she said.
LoPrete said it is important to encourage people to talk about issues of sexual assault because it helps the victims feel more comfortable speaking up about their experience.
“If we are afraid to talk about certain issues because they feel taboo, the people who are in that situation are going to feel that pressure too,” LoPrete said.
LoPrete said rape culture is one factor that discourages people from discussing issues of sexual violence. Rape culture includes issues such as victim blaming, inappropriate comments or jokes about rape, , denial of widespread rape, and silence on issues of sexual assault.
One of the topics LoPrete discussed was the definition of consent. He emphasized the need for a clear expression of agreement.
“Consent is not merely the lack of a no,” he said. “It’s an enthusiastic, affirmative yes.”
He also focused on the role of bystanders in the issue of sexual assault. He said it is essential for people to speak up.
“If you are willing to no longer stay silent when you see things or witness things that are not okay, you are taking steps to fighting sexual violence in the community,” LoPrete said.
Justice Unlocked executive director Jamie Sutton said one of the main issues victims of sexual assault face is trying to get people to believe them. It is important not to brush away these incidents, he said.
LoPrete said it is easy to feel intimidated by the legal system but he wants to encourage outreach that allows people to ask questions.
When people deal with the legal system after a sexual assault, they often do not know where to turn, Dowell said.
“You just don’t know what the steps are, and of course you can Google things, but that doesn’t always help your case as much as you would like to think,” she said.
Dowell said Justice Unlocked’s goal is to break down complicated legal matters for people and walk them through the process.
“It’s kind of like a partnership,” she said. “The whole goal is that they don’t have to go through this process alone.”