Utah wades into polygamy again with bill that would reduce penalties for consenting polygamists

(Tribune file photo) Polygamists while incarcerated at the territorial prison in Salt Lake City.

A state senator filed a bill Tuesday that would reduce the penalties for polygamy and lessen what Utah prosecutors would have to prove to pursue polygamists suspected of fraud and sex abuse.

The measure from Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, has been three years in the making and reflects the complexities of polygamy. If the bill, SB102, becomes law, polygamy among consenting adults would be reduced to an infraction — a level below many traffic offenses.

Infractions in Utah carry no jail time. Punishments can be fines of up to $750 and community service.

Current Utah law makes polygamy a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. It can be up to 15 years if the defendant is also convicted of fraud, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic abuse or human smuggling or trafficking.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, during an interview, Thursday, January 25, 2018.

That provision would be left intact. Henderson’s bill would add a few new crimes under which polygamy is a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison, including if the defendant is also convicted of homicide or failure to pay child support.

The Utah attorney general’s office and county prosecutors already have a policy of not prosecuting otherwise law-abiding polygamists, and Henderson said Tuesday she was trying to codify that.

“We need to stop marginalizing a whole group of people in our state,” she said. "We’re at the point now we have a human rights crisis in our state, and we can’t look the other way.”

The Beehive State has tangled with polygamy since territory days. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including its pioneer-prophet Brigham Young, married multiple wives as part of their religion. The faith began abandoning the practice in 1890 as a condition of Utah winning statehood. Today, the state’s predominant church excommunicates members found practicing it, but so-called fundamentalists, who assert that they are following original Mormon teachings, continue with plural marriage.

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune People attend a protest rally against an anti-polygamy bill in the Capitol rotunda during the 2016 legislative session in Salt Lake City, Monday, March 7, 2016.

Utah had sporadic arrests and prosecutions of polygamists through the 1950s. Henderson believes that has created a legacy of polygamists and their children mistrusting government and not reporting crimes.

“I don’t believe there is any immediate fix to the problem,” Henderson said. "It’s going to take some time to help [polygamists] feel comfortable. My biggest concern was potential victims of crime.”

Groups opposed to polygamy have said the practice is inherently abusive to women and children and that the penalties should not be lessened.

Melissa Ellis, who grew up in the polygamous Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group or The Order, has said people in these sects are indoctrinated from childhood to participate in polygamy, creating confusion for the legal definition of consent.

“When I was in the Kingston Group, I wasn’t afraid of the law,” Ellis said. “I wasn’t afraid of being arrested. I was afraid for my soul. The bill won’t do anything to help the victims. It will empower the abusers.”

Charlotte Erickson, who is in a polygamous marriage in Lehi, supports lowering the penalty for polygamists like herself because it might reduce the social stigma. Her children are most comfortable playing with kids from other polygamous households, Erickson said, because they won’t be teased or asked awkward questions.

“We can’t be ourselves in public," Erickson said. “We have to be something we’re not. And we’re just a normal healthy family.”

The Legislature created the current bigamy statute in 2017. Almost immediately afterward, politically active polygamists and their allies began lobbying legislators to lessen the penalties for consenting adults.

Amanda Grant, left, and Ariel Barlow, center, carry signs after a news conference with former polygamists speaking in favor of Republican Rep. Mike Noel's bigamy offense amendments Friday, Feb. 10, 2017, at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

No one has been prosecuted under the 2017 statute. That is a sore point for both polygamists and anti-polygamists. The first group sees it as a sign that prosecutors know the law is unconstitutional and it remains on the books only to marginalize polygamists.

Polygamy opponents see the inaction as a sign law enforcement doesn’t take crimes in polygamy seriously.

Amanda Grant, one of the stars in the television show “Escaping Polygamy," pointed to the case of Jacob Kingston, who is awaiting sentencing on multiple fraud and money-laundering charges. Federal court documents make clear that he has or had multiple wives. Yet there seems to be no effort to prosecute him for bigamy.

“I just don’t see the point in going through the trouble to make and change bills," Grant said, “if they aren’t actually following through with them anyways.”