Senate Judiciary Committee hears public testimony on sexual assault bills
As state legislators work on changes to Alaska's sex-offense sentencing laws, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard from the public Monday.
The committee first heard from invited speakers regarding Senate Bills 12 and 35, then members of the public, before continuing work on the measures with the Department of Law.
SB12 is sponsored by committee member Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna. If passed, it would:
- Classify unwanted contact with semen as a sexual crime, which means perpetrators can be required to register as sex offenders for this crime;
- Require that strangulation to the point of unconsciousness is defined as assault in the first degree, which carries a sentence of 5 to 20 years; and
- Eliminate credit toward time served for electronic monitoring for sexual assault convictions.
The founder of the No More Free Passes campaign, Elizabeth Williams, was an invited speaker. She started the grassroots movement shortly after KTVA's initial reporting of Justin Schneider's notorious no-jail time plea deal.
Schneider, 34, strangled a then 25-year-old Alaska Native woman unconscious and masturbated on her. Through the plea agreement, prosecutors were able to require him to undergo sex offender treatment, but he will not be required to add his name to the sex offender registry or serve additional jail time as punishment for the brutal midday assault in August 2017.
SB12 is a reflection of the group's legislative priorities following the outcome of the case, and comes at a time in which strangulation is receiving increased public awareness in Alaska.
"It's been described as waterboarding domestic violence," Williams said. "Waterboarding, as you know, is a form of torture where you cut off someone's ability to breathe. That's what strangulation is like. I don't think there's anything more terrifying than feeling like you can't breathe, and you can't fight this person off."
Dr. Carmen Lowry, executive director of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, was also invited to testify. She spoke on the issue of strangulation and referenced the disappearance of 10-year-old Ashley Johnson-Barr and subsequent murder case against 41-year-old Peter Wilson, which shocked the community of Kotzebue.
Johnson-Barr went missing on Sept. 6. Searchers found her body on Sept. 14. An autopsy revealed "signs of trauma that include strangulation and sexual abuse," according to a statement released by the Department of Law.
“I was just really struck by that and thought how painful that must be for anyone to have that image," Lowry said.
The committee also heard testimony on SB35, one of Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy's four crime bills with similar provisions to SB12:
- Makes non-consensual contact with semen would be considered a felony sex offense generating a sentencing range of two to 12 years.
- Increases penalties for third-degree sexual abuse of a minor when the age difference between the offender and victim is six years or greater, makes solicitation of a minor a felony in all circumstances, and makes indecent viewing or production of a picture a registerable sex offense if it involves a child.
- Changes current statutes appellate courts have ruled on to require a sex offender registered in another state to register in Alaska.
- Makes it illegal to send repeated unsolicited images depicting genitalia to another person.
Several members of the public, including a sexual assault survivor from Kodiak, spoke in favor of the measures, some offering suggested amendments.
Williams said No More Free Passes supports both bills.
"We need action, we don't need awareness," Williams said. "Alaska has done awareness campaign after awareness campaign, we've authored study after study, and the time for that is over. We have the numbers. We know that we're the worst in the nation. We have the stories. It's time to make really real change now."
Micciche said he knows many Alaskans lost faith in the justice system following the Schneider case, and said that's why he filed SB12.
"Since the incident, we'd been looking at sort of where to go on this," he said, describing his intention with SB12 to fix what went wrong with the Schneider case. "[...] that's what this bill is about, because the public deserves that."
While discussing a provision in SB35 that would force people who are required to be on the sex offender registry in other states to also register in Alaska, committee chair Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, cited a KTVA report which highlights a loophole that is not addressed by Dunleavy's bill.
In that case, a sex offender from Iowa was accused of sexually assaulting a young boy within a week of arriving in Alaska. He said he chose to move to Alaska believing he wouldn't have to register as a sex offender. He was correct, because he was adjudicated as a juvenile in the Iowa case – and Alaska does not require people to register as sex offenders for crimes committed as a minor.
Hughes asked the Department of Law to look into the ramifications of requiring people to register for sex offenses even if they were adjudicated as juveniles, as Iowa and other states already do.
It's possible the committee will add that provision to SB35.
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