Tracking of sexual assaults in Alaska 'inadequate', Senate committee says

By James Halpin

Alaska needs more village public safety officers, forensic nurses and better tracking for sexual assaults to help combat its status as the rape capital of the U.S., according to a new Senate Judiciary Committee report.

The report, released Friday, calls the current sex assault data tracking system "inadequate at best" for a state with a sex assault report rate of more than 2 1/2 times the national average.
The numbers tracked in the FBI's Uniform Crime Report don't include child or male victims, not to mention that 41 Alaska police departments -- mostly smaller, rural ones -- failed to report data in 2007 despite being required to do so, according to the report.
The report urges the Legislature to require the Department of Public Safety to collect uniform information on sex assaults and suggests lawmakers commission a victim survey to better understand the scope of the problem. In addition, the state should hire more VPSOs, nurses and child-pornography investigators, the report concludes.
"We have a serious problem here in the state," said state Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "Just focusing on the people that we've convicted isn't getting at the problem. ... What we heard loud and clear was that there are simple ways to build stronger cases, to produce more viable prosecutions against the many, many cases that are happening out there."

For example, of the 1,184 reports of sexual violence Alaska State Troopers got in 2003 and 2004, only 271 were accepted for prosecution, resulting in 217 convictions, according to the report, based on testimony from law enforcement experts this summer.
Lack of VPSOs could play a big role in the non-prosecuted sex assaults, the study says. According to state troopers, the rate of serious sexual assaults went down 40 percent and cases were 3 1/2 times more likely to be accepted for prosecution in villages with a VPSO.
Likewise, medical-forensic exams after sex assaults more than double the chance that cases will be prosecuted. But of 15 sexual assault nurse examiner programs in Alaska, only four are active, according to the report.
"It's all about putting your evidence together," said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, vice chairman of the committee. "If the prosecutors can't put the evidence together because you don't have a trooper or a VPSO that's there, or because you didn't get the appropriate medical exam as quickly as possible, get the DNA samples as quickly as possible, they make cases hard to prosecute."
In addition to bolstering the ranks of VPSOs and forensic nurses, the report also suggests looking for ways to help the State Crime Lab process DNA evidence quickly and continuing support of programs to reduce alcohol consumption, which is a factor in a majority of sex assault cases for Anchorage police.
The report also urges lawmakers to expand the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which targets online predators dealing in child porn or seeking out kids in chat rooms.
"We know that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people out there who are doing this and we also know from the studies that a large percentage of people who use child pornography commit crimes against children," Wielechowski said. "We just don't have the resources to go out and prosecute those cases."
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