Federal panel condemns Alaska's village justice system

Richard Mauer

A study ordered by Congress into safety and justice for Native Americans this week condemned the situation in village Alaska as the worst in the United States and not getting any better.

The report, by the bipartisan Indian Law & Order Commission, devoted a blistering 30-page chapter solely to Alaska, the only state so singled out, and faulted the legal logic and policy considerations used by state government to frustrate expanded jurisdictions for tribal courts.

The highly centralized, top-down approach to law enforcement and governance by the state has neglected huge swaths of Alaska, leading to Third World conditions and shocking rates of domestic violence, suicide and alcohol abuse, the report concluded. At least 75 communities in Alaska lack any law enforcement presence, while the state's village public safety program has been underfunded and understaffed and inappropriately unarmed, the report said.

"Problems with safety in Tribal communities are severe across the United States -- but they are systematically worst in Alaska," the report said. "Alaska's approach creates and reinforces discriminatory attitudes about Alaska Natives and the governing capacities of Alaska Native Tribes. As long as the system that helped create the problems is allowed to persist, the general public will be tempted to assume that the fault lies with the victims -- when instead, Alaska Natives and Alaska Native Tribal governments have had relatively little say in the way crime and justice are addressed in their communities."

Congress created the commission in the 2010 Tribal Law & Order Act, passed by unanimous consent in the Senate and overwhelmingly in the House, with Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, one of the "yes" votes. The nine-member commission, with three members picked by the President and the remainder by the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate, delivered its report Tuesday. Its chairman, Troy Eid of Denver, served as U.S. Attorney for Colorado under the George W. Bush administration and was appointed to the commission by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.

Congress directed the commission to conduct a "comprehensive study of criminal justice relating to Indian Country" with an eye toward reducing crime, rehabilitating offenders, and conducting effective criminal investigations. The commission was asked to pay special attention to juvenile crime and "reducing recidivism among Indian youth" and to study the authority and effectiveness of tribal courts and tribal governments.

Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty, who defended Alaska in a 15-page letter that the commission included its report, said Wednesday he agreed Alaska could do more for Native villages, but insisted the Parnell administration was improving conditions.

"This governor, I would submit, has done more than any governor in recent memory to try to advance public safety in these communities," Geraghty said. He said Parnell increased state spending for village public safety officers and troopers posted to rural parts of the state.

But when it came to looking for glimmers of progress, the Law & Order Commission had praise for Alaska's apolitical judicial branch, not the executive or the Legislature. It singled out Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe for attempting to resolve deep-rooted social and public-safety woes in the villages by incorporating traditional Native practices in sentencings and for building alliances between state and tribal courts.

"This outreach and innovation by the Alaska judiciary is impressive and welcome, but it falls far short of what is truly needed," the report said. "Not only the State's judicial branch, but also all of State government should be working in greater collaboration with Alaska Native Tribes. The immediate and overriding need is for a criminal justice system that fully recognizes, respects, and empowers their governments."

Just Tuesday, the same day the report was issued, the Parnell administration sent a proposal to the Tanana Chiefs Conference, the tribal coalition of 42 Interior villages, suggesting that tribal courts be allowed to hear misdemeanor cases committed in their jurisdictions, Geraghty said. Defendants would have to agree to be judged by the tribal courts, and the courts' authority would be limited to civil judgments, ruling out jail time.

Geraghty refused to provide a copy of the proposal sent to Tanana Chiefs, saying it wasn't ready for public view.

The commission called for much deeper reforms. It suggested that the state's failure to provide safe communities and an adequate village justice system in Bush Alaska is going to lead to a major push in Congress to expand the nature of Indian Country in Alaska, whether the administration likes it or not. Parnell, like governors before him, has fought the expansion of Indian country in the courts and in Congress, saying it impinges on Alaska's states' rights.

Congress itself came in for criticism in the report for often making Alaska an exception to laws governing tribes in the Lower 48. Though the report didn't mention Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, by name, it condemned her amendments to the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization this year for excluding Alaska's tribal courts from those allowed to issue protection orders.

"Given that domestic violence and sexual assault may be a more severe public safety problem in Alaska Native communities than in any other Tribal communities in the United States, this provision adds insult to injury. In the view of the Commission, it is unconscionable."

In a prepared statement, a spokesman for Murkowski said she and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, were working together on another measure, the Alaska Safe Families and Village Act, that would promote cooperation between the state and tribal governments "to enforce state criminal law to improve the safety conditions of our villages."

The report also disputed some common notions surrounding the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

The late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, one of its authors, had described ANCSA as a new direction in U.S. relations with its indigenous people, creating regional and village corporations instead of reservations.

But rather than reduce dependency on the federal government, the commission described the law as the "last gasp of Federal 'Termination Policy,'" designed to separate Natives from their land and their traditional values. After ANCSA, Congress changed direction and began to strengthen tribes in the Lower 48 with other legislation, the report said.

"Since then, evidence has accumulated that Tribal self-government is the best means of improving outcomes for American Indians living in Tribal communities, and international law has affirmed the importance of self-determination for indigenous peoples," the commission said. Yet, in Alaska, residents of villages without any law enforcement are being told by state and federal leaders "that they should 'just move,' " the report said.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.


Report: Indian Law & Order Commission
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