The Alaska State Capitol in April 2018. (Juneau Empire File)

The Alaska State Capitol in April 2018. (Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: Dunleavy, Legislature show action on fighting sexual assault crisis

Sexual assault is not a partisan issue.

Every campaign season, candidates are asked the same question: how will you address the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault in Alaska? And every time candidates vow to lead the way in turning the tide.

But when we look back on recent actions by our political leaders, those promises feel empty. Over the last few years we have watched as oversights and misguided reforms systematically dismantled protections for Alaskans who need them most. Senate Bill 91 reduced sentences for sexual abuse of minors in the third-degree and drastically lowered jail time for domestic violence. House Bill 15 allowed sex offenders and abusers to rack up credit at home waiting for trial, reducing or eliminating their already short sentences. Reduced bail meant dangerous offenders are often released into the public immediately after arrest. An Alaska Supreme Court case known as Whalen v. Whalen made long-term protective orders almost impossible to renew. Throw in dangerously understaffed troopers and prosecutors, and the picture for sexual assault and domestic violence was grim. Alaska was rated the most dangerous state in the country and our leaders were taking us in the wrong direction.

[Crime bill held up over conflict of interest]

This year, there are finally some signs of progress. As is too often the case, it took a horrific crime to produce action. Justin Schneider kidnapped, strangled and sexually assaulted a young woman and received no jail time. Years of pent up frustration at our system’s inability to solve the crisis of sexual violence burst to the surface. The ensuing campaign to reject Judge Michael Corey’s retention for his role in the case led by our organization No More Free Passes, showed the depth of passion on this issue and kept the subject at the front of the public’s mind. When Judge Corey was rejected by over 10 percentage points in a historic first for Alaska, it was obvious there was a mandate to tackle this crisis, and Alaska’s leaders finally started listening to the public on this issue.

Now at the start of the 2019 legislative session, a record breaking number of bills have been filed to address sexual assault and domestic violence. Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, filed Senate Bill 12 which fixes three crucial loopholes exposed by the Schneider case by closing the semen loophole, making strangulation the most serious classification of assault, and disallowing house arrest to be used as credit towards a sexual assault sentence. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Senate Bill 35 provides long overdue improvements to our sexual assault laws, including cracking down on child pornography and increasing sentences for sexual abuse of minors. Rep. Chuck Kopp’s, R-Anchorage, House Bill 12 gives victims the ability to renew long-term protective orders against their abusers. Reps. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, Zack Fields, D-Anchorage and John Lincoln, D-Kotzebue, filed a bill to end the “marriage defense” in sexual assault cases. Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, wrote a bill to make sexual gratification an aggravator in felony cases.

[Legislators brace for unknowns of Dunleavy’s budget]

No More Free Passes is proud to endorse these bills and congratulates Dunleavy and members of the Alaska House and Senate for showing leadership on this issue. We urge the Legislature to advance these bills quickly, and prove to Alaskans that they are serious about fixing crime. Sexual assault is not a partisan issue and we urge the Legislature to collaborate across the aisle.

Even if this legislation is passed this session, Alaska will still have a long way to go. Our unacceptably high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence will not be changed in a day. Action is still needed to fix failures in our criminal code and more work will be needed to ensure that the departments of law and public safety have the support they need to be effective. We still need to increase the support and protections we offer to victims, both when they are in the court system and as they rebuild their lives. We must ensure that criminals do not reoffend after their sentence, but instead are reintegrated into our society.

[Opinion: Don’t return Department of Corrections to failed practices of the past]

No More Free Passes is committed to the hard work ahead. We hope you join us as we advocate for change and hold our elected leaders accountable to their promises for reform. The crisis of sexual violence is too urgent to delay another day. Let’s get to work.

• Isaac and Elizabeth Williams represent No More Free Passes, an advocacy group seeking to end sexual assault in Alaska. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.

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