Officiating at an arranged polygamous marriage when a minor is involved could mean 5 years in prison, under a bill Sen. Ron Allen plans to introduce.
Allen, D-Stansbury Park, says those who marry off young girls are facilitating child abuse. One Utah attorney, he said, may have performed more than 200 of the illegal unions.
"We haven't had the teeth to help [women trapped in polygamous marriages] and we haven't made it clear with law enforcement that we intend to help them," Allen said.
Enforcement has long been a problem because plural marriages are usually unlicensed and often performed in secret. But Allen said prosecutors have told him they want the law.
"Definitely, I think this will send a clear message to leaders of organizations and those that perform marriages that they're also accountable," said Vicky Prunty, director of Tapestry Against Polygamy.
Allen is also sponsoring a joint resolution declaring that the state supports equal enforcement of Utah's child protection, welfare and tax fraud laws in every community, including polygamous enclaves. There have been increasing complaints that police in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., belong to the dominant polygamous church there and ignore child abuse and fraud common in the secluded communities.
Last week, a group frustrated with law enforcement in Hildale asked the Peace Officers Standards and Training administration to look into the alleged lack of enforcement. Resolutions don't carry any legal weight, but express the desires of the Legislature. "To a degree, it's symbolic, but it's an important symbol because we publicly state we're not ignoring this issue," said Allen.
Rod Parker, an attorney for Hildale's Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says neither of Allen's proposals will affect his clients because they already obey the existing laws. He said there are no underage marriages going on and law enforcement may actually be better there than in other cities.
"In some ways, the close nature of the community makes it easier to learn about problems early and do something about them," he said. "My experience in Hildale is they are quite vigorous."
Prunty said girls forced into arranged marriages face considerable obstacles if they decide to leave. "If they do [leave], they're going to come out of it with very little working skills or education, a handful of children, no child support," she said. "Often they come out very sheltered. Some don't even have drivers' licenses."
Allen has sponsored anti-polygamy measures in the past two years, with little success.
Last year, the Legislature created an investigator in the attorney general's office to focus on child abuse, domestic abuse and welfare and tax fraud. Crime specialist Ron Barton, who was hired to fill that slot, has been swamped with cases.