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Re-examining Alaska domestic violence crime and punishment

Jerzy Shedlock

The Alaska Justice Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage, a research arm of the college highly involved in crime research, has a received a $79,000 grant to examine how domestic violence and sexual assault cases are handled from the initial police report to their conclusions.

Domestic violence and sexual assault have plagued Alaska for decades -- almost 75 percent of Alaskans have experienced or know someone who has experienced one of the two violent acts, according to a national coalition against domestic violence. Sexual abuse of minors is currently a hot topic, too, as a criminal case out of the village of Bethel has shed light on a trusted caregiver exposed as a longtime abuser.

Dr. Brad Myrstol, a professor at UAA and director of the justice center’s Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Center, received the research grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics. The justice center will use the money to document the processes and outcomes of criminal justice cases of sexual assault, sexual abuse of minors and domestic violence in Alaska.

“We want to understand what happens once a crime has been reported; what happens to the cases,” Myrstol said. “Essentially, how does the state’s institutional apparatus respond.”

Research, at the justice center and otherwise, generally tends to focus on the end game of crimes, such as the number of crimes committed and the sentences handed down by the court system. Myrstol’s project, the Alaska Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Case Processing Project, will look at inputs as well as outputs, he said.

Myrstol thinks of the criminal justice system as a series of decision points. The cases’ researchers will examine when the victim, a witness or the perpetrator of a domestic violence-related crime call it in, because following initial reports the involved parties often fall down a well of painstaking procedures. Police may or may not refer a case for prosecution. There’s prosecutorial discretion. Cases get dropped. “The many forks in the road can be thought of as outcomes,” in relation to the study, he said.

Work on the project has yet to begin; the justice center needs to hire researchers and pin down logistics. But within about two months, the team will partner with the state’s Department of Public Safety, specifically the Alaska State Troopers, to begin the 12-month study.

Troopers will provide a pile of data, representative of the project’s goal. Then, researchers will code the cases and analyze the provided information. The collection will take six to nine months and analysis the remainder. Myrstol hopes to find out when people’s cases fall by the wayside, and the prevalence of case attrition, among other variables.

But arrests and resulting prosecutions involve many busy hands. The justice center will need to reach out to two additional project partners -- the Alaska Department of Law and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Division of Juvenile Justice -- for supplemental info.

The departments provide feedback along the way, too.

“These professionals are immensely important. They breathe life into sometimes sterile work and offer interpretation of statistical findings,” Myrstol said.

It’s hard to say what speaks louder in Alaska: stories or statistics. The high numbers of domestic violence and domestic abuse cast a long shadow over the state. Alaskans like to hear they’re number one, but the state leads the nation in rape, an unflattering title. Another alarming stat is that one out of every three Alaska Native and American Indian women will be raped during her life. A slew of campaigns have emerged in the past decade to combat the crimes, such as the Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell’s Choose Respect Campaign, or the Safe Alaska Family Team, SAFT. The list is quite long.

And the stories are heartbreaking. Like the story of Peter Tony. Bethel police arrested 69-year-old Tony in June. He is suspected of assaulting children over the past 40 years. Police charged him with abusing a 4-year-old girl between 2011-2012, but since the initial reports came out more victims have come forward, including Tony’s stepdaughter.

Myrstol said it’s a topic that is very hard not to commit yourself to once its havoc becomes apparent. He previously has asked himself how he can contribute to fighting the crimes. The process study should reveal what victims and perpetrators go though, he said. He also wants to institutionalize the project in the long run, so such information is readily available in the future. If the project continues, other police agencies will be called upon for data.

Still, grant money comes with requirements. A portion of the funds will go toward continued participation in BJS’s arrest-related deaths data collection project.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com