WE CANNOT HAVE LAWMAKERS WHO ARE SOFT ON VIOLENT CRIME
By TAMERA LIENHART
I was troubled by the recent news story about the young man who served only five years in a youth facility for the premeditated murder of two members of his family — two Anchorage women.
He was three months shy of his 16th birthday when he committed these cold-blooded murders. Read the story, hear the reports: He killed these innocent women because they were, “nagging” him.
Had he been 16, he would have been tried as an adult and prosecuted for the violent and brutal actions that took the lives of two innocent and defenseless women. The victims who should have been safe in their own home were killed.
I follow cases such as these because of what happened to my family in 1985. Three of my family members, my grandparents and great aunt were murdered in their own home by a 14-year-old and her 19-year-old boyfriend. They were senseless murders; these juveniles had always wanted to kill someone and faked a car problem to get in the house to use the phone.
Following these murders, the way the laws were written wouldn’t protect our family, it protected the criminals, the people who altered our lives forever.
We were treated by the criminal justice system nothing short of, well, criminal. We weren’t allowed into proceedings, could not testify, and were generally told to sit down and be quiet.
It’s awful to think that many laws are created through the shedding of innocent blood. A lot has changed since 1985, in Alaska much of it due to my mother and Aunt, who formed Victims for Justice. They gave a voice to other victims and a movement started; a movement where victims found the courage to speak up about the rapes and murders that happened to them, and how it impacted their lives – forever.
This victims’ rights movement led to substantial policy changes in Alaska. In 1994, the Victims’ Rights Amendment to the Constitution of Alaska was passed overwhelmingly by the voters of Alaska. It guaranteed certain rights to victims and laid out how the basic tenets of the criminal justice system should be administered. Article I, Section 24, reads:
“Criminal Administration shall be based upon the following: the need for protecting the public, community condemnation of the offender, the rights of crime victims, restitution from the offender, and the principle of reformation”
All five of these tenets are constitutionally equal, so we cannot place the rights of victims, the community, public safety or restitution below the rights of the criminal.
Also, in 1994, the Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill known as the “Automatic Juvenile Waiver.” Prior to 1994, the State had to prove that juveniles could not be rehabilitated in order to send them to adult court.
However, a series of brutal crimes committed by juveniles, including my grandparents, shocked the conscience of the community so much that legislation amending the criminal code was adopted by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Walter J. Hickel.
Under the automatic waiver, a 16- or 17-year-old is automatically charged as an adult if the crime they are accused of is an “unclassified” or “Class-A” felony. These are crimes against a person -– rape, murder, manslaughter, etc.
They do not include shoplifting, or property crimes, crimes normally associated with juvenile delinquents.
For Class-A and Unclassified felonies committed by juveniles under 16, the State can petition to move to adult court and there is a separate hearing for this process.
In 2014, I happened to be in Juneau for work and discovered that the Legislature was working to overturn the automatic waiver provision. Given the work my family and many other victims have given to open the system to victims, I was troubled by the discussion of rolling back the progress victims of crime had made.
As it turns out, several legislators working with an out-of-state lobby firm were advocating to eliminate the automatic waiver.
At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Kopp, then staff to Sen. Fred Dyson, made the pitch to the committee to overturn Alaska’s automatic waiver statutes. It was sold as a simple amendment to a larger bill. There was no fanfare, no studies, no advertisement to the public.
Thankfully, the committee did not pass the amendment. Had they done so, the recent case involving the juvenile who served five years in a youth center would have become the tip of the iceberg for releasing violent juvenile offenders back into the community, with little notice to the public, given the secrecy surrounding juvenile proceedings.
For example, the four vicious teenage criminals who murdered David Grunwald (a case that made headlines for several years) would still be petitioning the court to be treated as juveniles, while David’s friends and family members wind up in seemingly never-ending court battles before a trial can even start.
Senate Bill 91 was a complete slap in the face to all families who have suffered a tragic loss by the choice of others as victims of crime in Alaska. I am thankful that the Legislature amended many of the provisions, but I am still troubled that during its passage, the voice of victims was muted once again.
We’ve made so much progress to make Alaska a safer place. We have to choose leaders who give more than lip service to the rights and situations of victims. All candidates say they are in favor of helping victims, but as I saw during the attempt to overturn the automatic waiver, sadly what they say and what they do can be entirely different.
As I write this, the same group that gave us SB91 (The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission) is discussing how to overturn the automatic waiver of violent 16 and 17-year-olds, just like the recent case of the murderer who was released after just 5 years for brutally killing two innocent people.
So I plea, when a candidate or sitting legislator comes by your house asking for your vote, ask them what they think about releasing young criminals who have murdered or violently raped someone, do they need to held accountable or do you support a simple slap on the wrist.
These are real issues that have the possibility of impacting each one of us, we need leaders not afraid to stand up for what is right.
Past MRAK column by justice writer Tamera Liehhart: