CAN ALASKA HAVE A RATIONAL DISCUSSION ABOUT SEX CRIME PUNISHMENT?
In Alaska law, if there are three years separating two persons under the age of 19 who are engaged in sex, the sentence for the older person could be as harsh if he was a 45-year-old male preying on a 14-year-old female.
Because each illegal sex act has its own sentence, young males straight out of high school having sex with younger females can face a lifetime of prison for something that has been going on between the sexes since…well, forever. A summer of teen sex can have a very high price for the older individual.
Maybe that’s fair. Maybe not. As they do elsewhere, Alaska’s laws governing sexuality change with the era and societal norms. Men, in particular, are held to a standard in 2016 that women are rarely bound to, and more and more men are locked up for longer and longer periods as a result.
Sex crimes and punishment were one of the topics lawmakers tackled with Senate Bill 91, the criminal justice reform bill that passed during the last legislative session. During committee hearings, lawmakers asked what could be done to deal with the very real differences in crimes as they pertain to rape, sexual assault, age differentials, and other matters that happen between sexual beings.
THE JKT AMENDMENT
Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, with the confidence of youth, bravely waded into it during a House Judiciary Committee review of SB 91 in April.
He may have been influenced by the story of a young man with a well-known Sitka last name of Grussendorf, who had drawn a severe sentence for a case stemming from an indictment for having had oral sex and other sexual acts, including penetration, with an underage someone.
This was an 18-year-old man using some very bad judgment and a victim who will probably have a lot to work through during her life. He happened to have some family members who had political connections, but that’s not the crime; in Alaska, just about everyone has access to their legislators.
But the sentencing of Grussendorf may have been the kind of overkill punishment that a young lawmaker would feel inclined to correct for the future.
Kriess-Tomkins brought forward an amendment to SB 91 to have the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission take a fresh look at all sentencing laws for sex crimes.
And it’s about time. Some 800 Alaskans are in prison for some kind of sex crime, ranging from distribution of child pornography to attempted sexual abuse of a minor. The number grows every year, and many of those perpetrators face a lifetime of discrimination for a crime that, to some, seems worse than murder. Can none of them be rehabilitated?
THE MEAT OF THE AMENDMENT
Kreiss-Tomkins proposed that the Commission “appoint a working group to review and analyze sexual offense statutes and report to the legislature if there are circumstances under which victims’ rights, public safety, and the rehabilitation of offenders are better served by changing existing laws; the commission shall deliver the report to the senate secretary and the chief clerk of the house of representatives and notify the legislature that the report is available; the commission may include in the working group people representing a variety of viewpoints who are not members of the commission…”
It’s the kind of move for which, if you’re a Republican in Alaska, and you’re facing election, the media might savage you, as they do.
But reporters never batted an eye over the Kreiss-Tomkins amendment, even though this was a clear attempt to start the discussion of reforming sexual offense laws.
In August, Alaska Dispatch News columnist Shannyn Moore got the long knives out for Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, for a simultaneous amendment addressing sentencing for sex crimes, while Moore ignored the fact that Democrat Kreiss-Tomkins actually got an even more sweeping amendment through without opposition.
The Munoz proposed amendment had been withdrawn before it was voted on, after Munoz consulted with a respected advocacy group. The Kreiss-Tomkins amendment, however, was never mentioned by the media or anyone else, for that matter.
As Kreiss-Tomkins explained to the House Judiciary Committee, the minimums associated with second-degree murder, and the minimums associated with various sex acts can result in a murder drawing a less severe sentence than some sex crimes.
Given the lopsidedness, his amendment asked the commission to simply take a good look at sentencing for sex crimes, and report back. The Kreiss-Tomkins amendment was adopted without objection from anyone on the committee and, in fact, seemed to be accepted by Quinlan Steiner, Alaska’s public defender, who was present during the hearing.
LOOKING AT SEX CRIME PUNISHMENT: IT’S A THING
Sex offender laws, like drug laws, have evolved imperfectly over the past decades in response to a need to protect the public and bring justice for victims, and hold people accountable.
Thoughtful observers are questioning whether the treatment of sex offenders, particularly young ones, in America is doing more harm than good. Has society gone too far?
Researcher Nicole Pittman (Soros Open Society Foundation fellow) spent 16 months researching a massively documented Human Rights Watch analysis on the effect of stringent punishment for young sex offenders. What she came away with is a picture of lifetime punishment and sanctions so severe that many perpetrators, after they complete their sentences, can never return to society. There are no jobs for them, they cannot find places to live, and the are forever “reporting in” their locations. Their suicide rates are through the roof.
The average sentence in the U.S. for sexual abuse offenders subject to the mandatory minimum penalty is over 235 months, or 19.5 years. Of the 2,317 sex offenders (sexual abuse or child pornography), more than half were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.
Is it time that Alaska takes a fresh look at how these crimes are punished?
Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on much, but they seem to agree that sentencing review is due. The ball is now in the court of the criminal justice commission, which will weigh whether the law has balanced on the fulcrum of justice and fairness.