15 January 2007

The Power of Symbolism

My state senator, Don Olson, has pre-filed a bill that mandates a 99-year sentence for a police officer who commits murder while on duty. It's known as the "Sonya Ivanoff Law," in memory of the young Unalakleet woman who was murdered in 2003 by on-duty Nome police officer Matthew Owens. Owens was convicted in 2005 and sentenced - at the judge's discretion - to 99 years for the murder.

Several native organizations in Nome proposed the idea when they realized the law mandates a 99-year sentence for people who kill police officers but not vice versa. They thought it a fitting tribute to Ivanoff's life and had a resolution passed at AFN in support of the measure. Then they got Olson to introduce the measure.

Before I go any further, I'd like to say this is an admirable bill. I have no personal connection to Sonya Ivanoff but if her family thinks it's a fitting tribute, then I say let's go for it. I have some general concern about sentencing guidelines, of course, but nothing major.

But it is also an example of the overwhelming power of symbolism in politics. Let's be serious for a moment - Owens was the first on-duty police officer convicted of first-degree murder in the state. Given the high-profile of that trial, I imagine many police officers are going to think twice before doing likewise. Furthermore, should any police officer decide to do the same thing, it will likely be such a pre-meditated crime that the judge will impose the 99-year sentence regardless of what the law says.

My fear is that a lot of people are going to spend a lot of energy this legislative term on a bill that will likely have little effect on Alaskan society and is simply a symbolic gesture. It's clearly an important to many people in this region but it's symbolic nonetheless.

It's fine for family members and leaders in this region to spend that effort - if you've found a cause you believe in, then go for it - but I'm concerned it will take time away from Senator Olson's other responsibilities. And if this legislation passes (as I expect it will) and if I interview Senator Olson at the end of the term and ask him what his major accomplishments for the term were and he cites this as one example, I won't exactly be disappointed but I will have a passing thought about other things that could have been accomplished.

Perhaps the best thing would be if the bill passes quickly and we can all move on.

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