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Justice Department strikes deal with Montana prosecutor over rape cases

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - Prosecutors in Missoula, Montana, will improve their treatment of rape victims and allow the state attorney general to review any sexual assault cases they decline to pursue as part of an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department released on Tuesday.

    The deal between Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg and federal authorities marks the end of a tense two-year inquiry into how the Missoula County Attorney's Office deals with sexual assault, amid allegations that rape cases were not properly investigated and victims treated with disrespect.

    The inquiry launched by the Justice Department in 2012 led to similar accords last year with the University of Montana and Missoula over mishandling of sexual assaults on campus and in the city.

But Van Valkenburg responded to the probe by suing the Justice Department, accusing its attorneys of overstepping their bounds by trying to oversee local prosecutors. Federal authorities complained his office declined to cooperate.

    Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, hailed reforms in Missoula designed to prevent discrimination against women.

    “Together, we will better protect women who are victims of sexual assault and serve as a model for the entire country about how law enforcement can respond more effectively to reports of sexual assault,” she told a telephone news conference.

    The Justice Department review found mistreatment of victims, including assertions by a woman who alleged gang rape that her encounters with county prosecutors constituted a form of revictimization, and allegations by the mother of a 5-year-old rape victim that she was told: “Boys will be boys.”

    Van Valkenburg, who said previously he viewed Justice Department allegations “with frustration, disbelief and outrage,” said he supported the deal, and that his office had been working to improve rape prosecutions before the federal probe.

    The agreement requires Van Valkenburg to develop and implement sexual assault policies and training for prosecutors, improve treatment of those reporting rape, and hire an in-house victim coordinator, Samuels said.

    Montana Attorney General Tim Fox is to ensure those measures are undertaken and review rape cases the county attorney declines to prosecute for one year to ensure those decisions are sound, she added.

    Van Valkenburg will also drop his lawsuit, and federal prosecutors will not file suit over their allegations the county attorney office's response to sexual assault violated U.S. law.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)

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