Alaska editorial: Passing feel-good laws makes no sense

Posted: Tuesday, May 08, 2007

This editorial appeared in The Voice of the Times:

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There seemingly is a stampede to fix the law whenever a particularly shocking or heinous crime is committed, even if the new, improved law seems somehow superfluous.

As a society, we feel the need to do something, anything in the wake of horror to avoid feeling powerless.

Our statute books are full of examples. Laws pertaining to hate crimes, mandatory sentences, three-strikes laws, all are in response to the confounding reality that criminals too often ignore the laws the rest of us live by. More draconian laws with tougher sentences are just the logical next step in the "there oughta be a law" progression of justice and frustration. We are enticed by the prospect of finally - finally! - getting the criminals' attention. But the laws change little in the crime landscape and serve scant purpose.

The Legislature passed, and the governor signed into law, a good example. It is legislation that will require the maximum sentence for first-degree murder if the crime is committed by an on-duty police officer.

The bill was written and adopted in response to the 2003 slaying of 19-year-old Sonya Ivanoff by Nome police officer Matthew Owens. He was convicted of first-degree murder long before the law was passed and he rightly was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

With all due respect to Ivanoff's memory and heart-felt condolences to her family, we are left wondering: Is this particular law needed because the state is having a rash of murders by on-duty police officers who then escape fair sentencing by the courts? If not, why address a problem that seemingly does not exist?

The business of assigning mandatory prison sentences based on some set of arbitrary criteria undermines the law and establishes classes among victims and perpetrators.

Why should a police officer on duty who commits murder get a mandatory 99 years when anybody else committing the same act could get a lesser sentence? It would seem to us that all murderers are just that, murderers, and that their victims deserve, even require, the same level of justice from the system. If we are going to have mandatory sentences for one kind of murderer, it would seem only logical and right that all those convicted of first-degree murder should receive 99 years. Period.

The parsing of the sentencing structure, as, for instance, in the case of laws dealing with hate crimes requiring enhanced sentences for the utterance of this slur or that, does nothing to further the cause of justice. In fact, it accomplishes just the opposite - it values one human life over another based purely on whatever legalistic whim is in the breeze at the time.

Instead of laws to make victims or their families feel better, it would be far better if we passed laws that actually made us safer.

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