Children, seniors to get new protections

Posted: Sunday, October 17, 2010

Gov. Sean Parnell is proposing new state efforts to protect some of the most vulnerable Alaskans, including children, from sexual exploitation and elders from both physical and financial abuse.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

While Parnell describes rampant problems in Alaska, the changes he's proposing include only modest changes in laws and funding.

Alaska has a "pervasive" problem of child sexual assault, he said, the worst ranking in the nation.

Fighting child pornography online can prevent abusers from harming Alaska children, Parnell said.

"They're using child pornography to lure kids in and take advantage of them," he said.

Parnell cited an example provided by the Alaska State Troopers' Technical Crimes Unit, which showed him in a randomly selected square mile of Anchorage with nearly 100 addresses downloading child pornography in a 24-hour period.

Among the changes he's proposing are boosting penalties for some child pornography crimes and adding to the law enforcement effort.

He's proposing changing some crimes be increased in seriousness, changing Online Enticement of a Minor and Unlawful Exploitation of a Child by Manufacturing and Distributing Child Pornography to Class B felonies. They are currently Class C felonies.

The state's top criminal prosecutor, Deputy Attorney General Rick Svobodny said it was difficult to say specifically what the effect of those changes would be.

"Clearly the level of the crime sets out a societal indication as to how the public views the crime and the consequences of committing the crime," he said.

The tougher penalties that come with higher level crimes may lead to more cases going to trial, but it could also lead to more prosecutions, he said.

Currently, those laws are not being used with great frequency. Svobodny said that in 2009, prosecution was sought in eight cases for online exploitation, but it was unclear if those cases were actually prosecuted. There were another five prosecutions sought for viewing, and eight for distribution.

There were an additional 19 recommendations for possession of child pornography.

Parnell's budget will also include an increase of two additional personnel to fight the problem, said Karen Rehfeld, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

On of the positions with be an investigator in the Troopers technical crimes unit, and the other a criminal justice technician, she said, but didn't yet known the size of the proposed budget increase.

"We haven't costed those out yet," she said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has been studying those issues, and has viewed the same information Parnell has and will likely support his proposals, said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.

"The studies show that people who are associated with (online child pornography) are the kind of people going out and committing crimes against children," he said.

He said that the emphasis might be more effective with more troopers, instead of changes to laws that are only being used infrequently now.

"It's already a felony, I don't know that jacking it up one level is going to stop it," he said.

It might take 12 more troopers to make a dent in the amount of children being victimized, he said.

Parnell is also proposing changes to protect vulnerable elderly who are easy prey for scam artists and perpetrators of fraud and abuse.

That area, too, will be seeing budget increases, likely in the Office of the Long Term Care Ombudsman, she said.

"They've seen a significant increase in the kind of reports that are coming in," she said.

Over the last three years, cases have gone up 231 percent, the administration said.

Rehfeld said that office, which investigates complaints about senior care, currently has a budget of $679,000 and five employees.

They are now working with the office to ensure that its budget provides enough staff for adequate and timely investigations, as well as to conduct its outreach and information programs.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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