SALT LAKE CITY — Shirlee Draper, a former FLDS member, said she saw firsthand how her leaders “were able to gain control because of the fear of law enforcement.”
Classifying bigamy, or plural marriage, as a felony crime in Utah created its own chilling effect that made victims of abuses within polygamy afraid to step forward, she said.
“I grew up with an intense fear of outsiders,” Draper told lawmakers on a Senate committee Monday.
Now an advocate for victims of the polygamous community, Draper urged lawmakers to pass SB102, which would lower the penalty for consenting adults practicing bigamy in Utah from a felony to an infraction.
After an emotional and lengthy hearing, the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Standing Committee voted unanimously to favorably recommend the bill. It now goes to the full Senate for consideration.
While it reduces the penalty for bigamy to an infraction, the bill also enhances penalties for bigamy when in concert with other crimes like fraud, abuse and child marriage.
Some practicing members of polygamy supported the bill seeking to lift the stigma of otherwise law-abiding people in plural marriage. As did some victim advocates, who agreed with the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, that the longstanding felony crime in Utah’s statute has terrified victims, sending dark behaviors associated with polygamy — such as child abuse or fraud — into the shadows.
“These government actions merely isolated polygamist families, drove them underground, instilled fear, and led to a culture of secrecy in their communities,” Henderson said.
But there were also victim advocate groups — including the Sound Choices Coalition and Holding Out HELP — who lobbied against the bill, concerned reducing the criminal penalty would only embolden perpetrators of child abuse and other crimes within polygamous families.
“My clients are overwhelmingly telling me decriminalization will not work to expose or reduce perpetrators of abuses,” said Tonia Tewell, founder of Holding Out HELP. “They have said, rather, it would embolden them to increase abuse ... knowing there is even less to be concerned about legally.”
Angela Kelly, director of Sound Choices Coalition, fought passionately against the bill, worried it would encourage increased polygamy.
“It’s a ticket. It’s a fine,” Kelly said. “There’s no court hearing. How are you going to enforce it?”
But enforcement is already an issue, even with Utah’s current statute. Prosecutors throughout the state have for years now stepped back from prosecuting the law as higher courts have struck down criminalization of other lifestyles. Prosecutors have also reported polygamist leaders have used the felony offense to “suppress and oppress” members of their communities, said Jeff Buhman, executive director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors and Public Attorneys.
Buhman was sued by reality TV star Kody Brown and his wives, of the TLC show “Sister Wives,” in a case that struck down Utah’s polygamy ban several years ago. A federal judge basically decriminalized polygamy for several years before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision.
Holly Kingston, a member of the Davis County Cooperative Society or the Kingston Order, which practices polygamy, spoke in favor of the bill.
“This is my life, my choice, and this is my children’s life,” she told the committee. “My family’s come out multiple times against fraud and abuse, and I think these crimes should be pursued aggressively on their own.”
But Ora Barlow, a former FLDS member, said she wasn’t fearful of the law — she was more fearful of her leaders.
“As a child growing up there, I can tell you the only friend I felt like I had was the law, because when the law did take effect and the leaders were put in prison, I actually felt free,” Barlow said.
Ultimately, lawmakers on the Senate committee backed Henderson’s bill. The only lawmaker who seemed to be on the fence, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley, said he would support it as a change for the better, rather than keeping a law on the books that had become unenforceable, and likely creating more harm through stigma than helping eliminate problems associated with polygamy.
“I have not heard a single person bring forward a better solution,” Thatcher said.
The bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration.