Woman who escaped polygamy shares mixed feelings about bill to decriminalize it

Woman who escaped polygamy shares mixed feelings about bill to decriminalize it (3).png
Woman who escaped polygamy shares mixed feelings about bill to decriminalize it (Photo from KUTV file video)

Utah lawmakers are unanimously backing a bill that would lessen the punishment for people caught practicing polygamy.

Senate Bill 102, sponsored by Senator Deidre Henderson (R-Spanish Fork), would change bigamy from a felony offense to an infraction.

“We have a really stiff penalty, and what my bill proposes to do is to remove the fear that a lot polygamists have,” Henderson said.

While the bill passed unanimously in a senate committee earlier this week, some who’ve escaped polygamy have mixed feelings about the legislation.

Jessica Christensen left polygamy when she was 15 years old. Since then, she’s been an advocate for others trying to do the same. When she first read S.B. 102, she said she had some reservations.

“When I first heard about this bill, it was kind of like a gut punch reaction: 'What? Why? This is insulting."

Christensen said to her, the bill seemed to make perpetrators more comfortable.

"It was like the crimes we endured, the abuse we endured, those experiences are just going to be an infraction,” she said.

Christensen also said it seemed to be the exact opposite of what advocates had been working toward.

“Three years ago, we worked on H.B. 99 with the state of Utah to help make polygamy a felony. Three years later, no one’s been prosecuted,” she said. “You leave [polygamy].... and you get kind of told, ‘Oh,, sorry. That’s not prosecute-able.’ That’s so insulting.”

Henderson said the current law in not enforceable and it’s hurting more victims than it is helping.

“What we’re doing with our law is we are criminalizing the victims,” Henderson said. “My bill doesn’t make it easier on the people who do bad things to other people. My bill actually does the opposite.”

Decriminalizing polygamy, Henderson said, will make it easier for victims to come forward.

“I think the wall we’ve placed around people to keep people out of polygamy is the very wall that’s trapping people in, and I am proposing that we start to knock that wall down a little bit,” she said.

Christensen said she’s taken a lot of time to think about the S.B. 102. She believes separating the act of polygamy from the crimes it’s often associated with is a step in the right direction. She’s hopeful the bill will make a difference.

“Since I first heard of this bill, I am most definitely coming around to the idea and actually want to push it through,” Christensen said. “At this point, status quo, what it’s been, nothing’s happening. Let’s see what happens next.”