Gov. Sean Parnell told the Alaska Federation of Natives Thursday he is considering a plan that would allow tribal courts -- rather than state judges -- to preside over cases involving certain domestic violence and alcohol-related crimes. The village-based courts would hand out punishments and, if the offender complied, the case would not become part of his or her state criminal record, according to the Department of Law.
The announcement drew immediate criticism from Native rights advocates, who said the pledge contradicts the Parnell administration's track record of opposing efforts to strengthen tribal court jurisdiction. Parnell, who is seeking reelection, made the remarks in Fairbanks before the state's largest gathering of Alaska Natives.
The details of the governor's proposal, including exactly what criminal offenses the state would agree to hand off to tribal courts as civil matters, remain to be determined.
"A few weeks back, members of AFN's board, including your chairman and president, asked if I would consider the state entering into agreements so tribal courts could more fully address alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and suicide," Parnell said, according to a transcript provided by his office. "The simple answer is 'yes.'"
There are 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska. Many operate tribal courts that handle child custody and child protection cases, among other matters.
Natalie Landreth, senior staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage, said the Parnell administration has battled to limit the authority of those courts despite his Thursday remarks.
"What Gov. Parnell said today is the exact opposite of what his administration has been doing for the past several years," she said. "I would point specifically to their opposition to and gutting of the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act."
First proposed by Sen. Mark Begich in 2011, the Safe Families and Villages Act would have provided federal aid to tribal courts and village peace officers. At the time, Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that state agencies worried investments in tribal courts would fund an "alternative system of justice." That tribal system would compete with the existing state system and its constitutional guarantees, she argued.
Asked about the apparent change of course Thursday, Leighow said the governor is not proposing handing criminal jurisdiction of certain crimes to tribal courts. The state is considering entering an agreement with tribes that would allow the offenses to be heard as civil matters instead criminal hearings, she said.
If the offender did not comply with the tribal court's punishment, the tribe would hand the evidence and paperwork to the state troopers, according to the Department of Law. Troopers would then have the option of prosecuting the case in state criminal court.
The Department of Law will be discussing and negotiating details of the proposal over the next two weeks, according to a statement from Parnell's office.
Parnell also said the state is considering agreements between states and cities that would allow "community panels" made up of traditional village council members, city council members and others to handle sentencing in alcohol-possession cases.
Thirty-four villages and cities in Alaska currently outlaw possession. Many more ban liquor sales and importation.
The Parnell administration clashed with the Native American Rights Fund earlier this year when the state intervened on the behalf of a man accused of beating his girlfriend in a case that is testing the Minto tribal court's ability to strip the man of custody of one of children. The man, Edward Parks, was later convicted of kidnapping and assault, but the state filed a motion in the Alaska Supreme Court arguing that the Minto tribe was trying to enforce an order against a nonmember..
Parks is an enrolled member of the tribe at Stevens Village, about 60 miles north of Minto
About this story
Reporting for this story, part of ongoing coverage of the impact of alcohol in Alaska, was supported by the Recover Alaska Media Project fund at the Alaska Community Foundation. Contributors to the fund are Alaska Children's Trust, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Bristol Bay Native Corp., Providence Health & Services Alaska, Mat-Su Health Foundation, Wells Fargo and Rasmuson Foundation. The Daily News has sole responsibility for the selection and execution of the stories in this series.