The Alaska Department of Law's decision to terminate the policy which offered plea bargains to those who have committed serious crimes has been long overdue. In a state where domestic violence and sexual assault is higher than the national average, those who commit and repeatedly commit such crimes need to be spared no mercy by the courts.
The recent case of Jerry Active, the 24 year old man accused of brutally murdering a Cambodian elderly couple, sexually assaulting a toddler and a 90-year old woman shortly after being released from jail is one of many examples of a legal system gone awry.
Although the Department of Corrections as well as a judge realized their failure to protect the population at large after the fact, a plea bargain (as they now realize) should have never been offered based on the criminal record that Active had.
Sexual assault, domestic violence, and other serious crimes need to be taken seriously. Crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence need to be sentenced more as felonies and not as misdemeanors. Perpetrators who have no regard for the law and disregard protective orders need to be punished more severely than being given a slap on the hand or a night in jail. Victims cannot feel safe if they know their perpetrator is going to be released shortly after being arrested or if they make a plea with the courts so that the case can be swiftly processed. Although putting the principal perpetrator behind bars may not completely ensure a victim's safety, sentencing the perpetrator with no chance to petition for a lesser charge or leniency is the appropriate legal action.
The question of how this new policy may affect already over-stretched courts throughout is one we must deal with. How this could impact Anchorage is unknown; costs could be passed onto Anchorage residents. Our safety is not for sale and does not come with a price tag; we put our trust in the legal system to protect us against those who commit such malicious crimes and to execute the laws of Alaska to their full extent.
In addition to the judges who do the sentencing, we too also rely on law enforcement to protect us. If we do not have enough law enforcement to respond to domestic violence situations or sexual assault incidences, we cannot feel safe. As we are all aware, Anchorage and the state at large still fall short in the law enforcement response to domestic and sexual violence.
In rural Alaska where many villages do not have State Troopers or local police departments, responding to a distress call involving sexual or domestic violence is often inappropriately handled. Many victims do not report such incidents because they fear that the person they call is related to them or knows someone who knows the perpetrator and empathizes with the perpetrator. Lack of understanding and education about sexual and domestic violence is a problem in law enforcement -- and also among judges who determine sentencing. The courts alone cannot keep us safe, we can ask for justice, but often it is not served.
Taking plea bargains off the table for those who commit serious crimes is a step in the right direction. However, if we are going to leave it up to judges to sentence perpetrators, they should attend mandated training to learn about sexual assault and domestic violence. They should spend a day in domestic violence shelter to see what it is like to be a victim of domestic violence, and spend time with an advocate that works with victims of sexual assault so that they can understand what victims experience.
Kari Singsass is a former domestic violence case manager who remains active civil and legal issues. She lives in Anchorage.