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Parnell aims to reduce rate of sexual assault

Sean CockerhamMcClatchy-Tribune News Service
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News

Gov. Sean Parnell is pitching a new plan to combat a blight governors have long tried and failed to solve: Alaska's domestic violence problem and highest-in-America rate of sexual assault.

Parnell announced his proposals in Anchorage Thursday on a stage at Bartlett High School, with a wall of uniformed law enforcement officers arrayed on risers behind him.

"We are going to end the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault in this state within a decade," said Parnell, who took over as governor this year and is up for election next fall. "No longer will Alaska lead in that statistic."

Alaska's rate of sexual assault is two and a half times the national average, and children are sexually assaulted at six times the national average. Alaska ranks among the top five states for per-capita rates of domestic violence and the rate of Alaska women killed by a partner is 1.5 times the national average. Parnell's attorney general, Dan Sullivan, promised offenders will be aggressively prosecuted and shown no leniency.

"Those who might otherwise be tempted to abuse Alaska's women and children will come to realize that Alaska has turned into the last state in which you want to go on trial for domestic violence or sexual assault," Sullivan said.

The state will issue new guidelines for prosecutors to ensure no plea deals could allow convicts to avoid being on the sex offender registry, Sullivan said. The administration will also propose that the Legislature toughen penalties by giving harsher sentences to people who commit sexual assaults on victims who are passed out, Sullivan said.

But Parnell's plan includes no additional money for a corrections department that would be required to house and feed anyone jailed in a crackdown. The corrections commissioner expects that Alaska's existing jail capacity and the planned new prison opening in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough in 2012 should be enough, said Randy Ruaro, the governor's deputy chief of staff.

The most expensive piece of Parnell's plan has been proposed before: $75 million for a new state crime lab in Anchorage. Some legislators have balked at the price in prior years, saying it's a more expensive design than crime labs in other states. Anchorage lawmakers have advocated for it but the idea hasn't received nearly as much enthusiasm from representatives of other parts of Alaska.

Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters said building the lab would let the state take advantage of new forensic science techniques and speed up investigations.

Parnell's plan also includes:

• Eleven new sexual assault/domestic violence investigators, eight of whom would be funded with federal economic stimulus money.

• A request for the Legislature to fund 15 new village public safety officers for a cost of $1.26 million. It's a proposal Parnell has made before, and he said he'd like to see that many VPSOs hired each year for a decade.

• The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation providing $1 million for VPSO housing.

• The state paying about $2.7 million for prosecutors, staff, investigators and a forensic scientist whose federal funding is expiring.

• A new domestic violence/sexual assault prevention coordinator for $200,000 as well as $382,000 in increased funding for shelters.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French, who is running against the Republican Parnell for governor, said he was pleased. "I think the governor is moving in the right direction," he said.

French's judiciary committee has also made recommendations on domestic violence and sexual assault. French said he'd like to see Parnell add to his plan better tracking of sexual assaults, as well as forensic nurses who document injuries as evidence for juries.

Peggy Brown, executive director of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, praised the governor's plan and said it requires courage to take on the issue. Her group has produced public service ads called "Real Alaskan Men Choose Respect," to run through this spring. They're funded by $45,000 from the Legislature and a $10,000 donation from the cigarette company Altria.

Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.


By SEAN COCKERHAM
scockerham@adn.com