The state Assembly passed a bill Thursday that would allow victims of gender-based crime to pursue civil suits against their perpetrators, as well as expand the statute of limitations to seven years.

Under the bill, anyone who has experienced physical, emotional or economic harm because of a violent, gender-based act would be able to sue their perpetrator in a civil court up to seven years after the crime occurred. The victim would be able to receive damages for distress, punitive damages and litigation costs, including lawyer fees.

The bill’s definition of a gender-based act is one that is committed at least partly because of the victim’s gender, or a physical intrusion that is sexual in nature and non-consensual.

Ian Henderson, director of legal systems at the Wisconsin Coalition of Sexual Assault, said they testified in support of the bill at both the Senate and Assembly public hearings.

According to him, one in seven women in Wisconsin is sexually assaulted once in her life, and most attacks are not even reported.

Henderson added the criminal justice system is not an option for many survivors of sexual assault, and this bill opens up a different avenue for victims to seek justice.

“Historically, criminal justice has not been a source of place where it’s terribly empowering for survivors of sexual assault,” Henderson said. “[The bill] puts the accountability back where it belongs, which is in the hands and pockets of the perpetrators,”

If more victims start to bring forth civil sexual assault cases to seek monetary damages, including attorney fees, it may make attorneys more willing to take these kinds of cases, he added.

Henderson said they also support increasing the statute of limitations to seven years. To put it in perspective, he said the statute of limitations for felony sexual assault cases is six years, a misdemeanor is three years and intentional torts are two years.

“What we know about long-term impacts of sexual assault is that it has lasting emotional and psychological burdens on those that are victims,” Henderson said. “Two years is not a necessarily real timeframe we feel to all survivors to make decisions on whether or not to go through the court process.”

Andy Cook, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Defense Counsel, said its group had concerns about the initial version of the bill because they felt the language was too vague. Legislators added an amendment, however, that added the word “violent” in front of the word “act,” which the Defense Counsel supported.

“The definition was left open, and they addressed that issue to make sure it only applied to actual physical abuse,” Cook said.

The Assembly also passed a bill that would enact stricter penalties against perpetrators of crimes based on a person’s gender. Currently, enhanced penalties are used against perpetrators who commit crimes based on someone’s race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry.