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Begich: Federal measures will help Alaskans feel safe at home and in the streets

Mark Begich
OPINION: There's no greater priority for Alaska than to make sure Alaskans feel secure at home and in their own communities. Loren Holmes photo

It’s hard to open the newspaper or turn on the TV across our state without hearing about another horrendous crime being committed against innocent Alaskans.

Just last month, a 15-year-old girl shot while she slept in her Mountain View apartment.

A 76-year-old Anchorage man savagely assaulted by three young men in his own driveway while doing yard work.

A 50-year-old seasonal fisherman beaten to death by four while sleeping outside a building in Anchorage.

The FBI reported last year that serious crime in Anchorage in 2012 -- the most current statistics available -- was up in seven of eight categories, including murder rape, robbery and assault. Overall, violent crime was up 3.8 percent and property crime -- thefts and burglaries -- rose nearly 12 percent.

Crime statistics are always subject to debate. But these troubling statistics come on the heels of a new report that finds the ranks of the Anchorage police force at a nine-year low, with reductions in traffic enforcement and especially drunk driving.

In much of rural Alaska, public safety conditions are deplorable.

Last year’s national Indian Law and Order Commission report focused a full chapter on Alaska. And what it found is shocking:

•  Native women suffer rates of domestic violence 10 times higher than in the Lower 48;

•  Alaska Natives are more than twice as likely to die by homicide than Caucasian Alaskans;

•  On average, an Alaska Native female becomes a victim of sexual assault or of child sexual abuse every 30 hours.

The report also found a troubling lack of law enforcement in rural Alaska, including 75 villages that lack any law enforcement presence at all.

To tackle this assault on innocent Alaskans, I recently outlined a 12-point proposal of actions we’re taking at the federal level to tackle increasing crime and public safety challenges in both urban and rural Alaska.

This package is based on months of research and discussions with law enforcement officials and community leaders across our state. I was pleased to be joined by representatives of the Anchorage Police Department and Anchorage School Board at a recent news conference to announce the plan.

I have introduced or cosponsored six bills, starting with the Drug-Free Playground Safety Enhancement Act. A suggestion of Anchorage federal prosecutors, this bill makes clear that drug dealers caught on or near playgrounds should be charged, convicted and jailed.

Another issue I heard about from federal prosecutors is the new synthetic drug known as Spice. This is the new rage among young people, and its manufacturers regularly change ingredients to get around the law.

I am co-sponsoring two bills to crack down on spice: to make it clear that substances like so-called “bath salts” can be prosecuted when the intent is to sell for human consumption; and empaneling scientists headed by the DEA to make clear which of these drugs can be regulated as controlled substances.

I’m also working to pass other bills including: cracking down on human trafficking and child exploitation; combating prescription drug abuse; and giving Alaska tribes more tools to deal with domestic violence in their communities.

Cracking down on crime requires resources, so I’m also using my position on the Senate Appropriations Committee to work for targeted new investments in anti-crime areas.

For example, a $67 million increase in the COPS program -- Community Oriented Policing Services -- helps state, local and tribal agencies hire more police officers. I’m also supporting more investments in gang suppression and local prosecution, like the city-federal partnership I launched as mayor of Anchorage to crack down on drugs, gangs and gun offenses.

I’m also pushing federal agencies to implement policies now which don’t require congressional action.

For example, as we reform the postal service, we’re working to make sure that local communities are allowed to stay alcohol-free if they choose, even though the postal service may begin sending alcohol nationally. This is especially important for many rural Alaska villages.

There’s no more important priority for Alaskans than feeling safe in our homes, neighborhoods, villages and cities.

Mark Begich, a Democrat, has served in the U.S. Senate since 2009.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.