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Report: Alaska Tribal Justice is Worst in the US

Published On: Dec 24 2013 12:14:56 PM AKST   Updated On: Nov 14 2013 11:40:37 PM AKST
Federal Report Sharply Questions Alaska’s Tribal Justice System

Alaska’s rural justice process is the worst in the entire United States, and now is the time for wide-ranging reforms.

That is the chilling conclusion and call to action from a report by the Indian Law and Order Commission, a bipartisan group formed by Congress to find flaws in the justice process that affect Native communities across the country.

In a chapter dedicated to Alaska, the commission depicts several widely-known aspects of the justice system here as critical shortcomings in need of immediate change:

Seventy-five communities across the state have no law enforcement presence at all.

Even communities that have a Village Public Safety Officer are hamstrung: those officers have little training, are not allowed to carry a gun, and in many instances have no place to detain someone who committed a crime until an Alaska State Trooper arrives.

The court system has a sporadic footprint in most rural communities, instead opting to pull defendants away from their hometowns to courts in rural hubs and urban centers; only magistrates that handle less serious offenses routinely travel to villages, and not to all of them.

There are ongoing struggles with substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, little in the way of support services, and on and on and on.

The commission noted it is “not the first advisory board to recognize the lack of access to safety and public safety services in Alaska Native communities.

"But it should be the last.”

Achieving the goal that proved too ambitious for past groups will require several steps, according to the commission.

One recommendation is to remove Alaska’s exemption from the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, which among other things clarifies the roles of each level of government in ongoing efforts to battle the issues facing Native communities.

The commission also calls on Congress to give Alaska Tribal Courts the authority over their members within the boundaries of their communities, particularly with domestic violence and sexual assault cases.

In a joint statement, the Native American Rights Fund and Tanana Chiefs Conference point to the lack of law enforcement and the disproportionate frequency of crimes against Native women as reasons why “every Alaskan needs to read this report.”

“The report reaffirms what many other commissions have concluded and what NARF and TCC have argued for many years: rural justice in Alaska is broken and the best and most cost-effective way to fix it is to work directly with Alaska’s tribes," wrote  NARF attorney Natalie Landreth.    

Curtis Summers, vice chair of Tanana Village, told the commission during local testimony that he also wants to see more direct involvement in the process.

"We don’t get much justice in Fairbanks," he said. "Our tribe needs the state to recognize and respect our tribal courts."

Attorney General Michael Geraghty wrote in a February response to the commission's findings that he disagrees with some of their points.

“The state does not believe that expanding tribal jurisdiction is necessary in order to achieve the positive outcomes sought by the commission," he wrote.

But he does believe the state could do more in rural Alaska.

Superior Court Judge Michael Jeffery, in a recent interview with KTUU, described what it can mean to have more resources and law enforcement in communities.

Jeffery has been on the bench in Barrow since 1982. His caseload and the prevalence of violent crimes are remarkably lower than elsewhere in rural Alaska, and the presence of law enforcement available across the North Slope Borough is greater.

"Why is our criminal caseload lower?" Jeffery said. "The North Slope has from the beginning had an emphasis on the public safety issues. We have in each of our villages a sworn police officer that are equivalent of Alaska State Troopers."

There is also a police station with a holding facility in each of the villages along the North Slope. "That makes a big difference," Jeffery said.

The commission will return to Alaska next month, when members present the report to the Bureau of Indian Affairs Providers Conference at the Dena’ina Center in Downtown Anchorage on Dec. 4.

Channel 2's Chris Klint contributed to this story