Reasons to be optimistic about Alaska's public safety crisis

Entering a taxi cab at the Ted Stevens Airport, the driver asks: "How much longer are you going to keep coming to Alaska?" A cabbie in Fairbanks said the same thing to me last March.

It's refreshing how many Alaskans have heard about the Indian Law and Order Commission and its recent report urging the State of Alaska, the Federal government, and all 229 Alaska Native Nations to work together to make Alaska safer and more just.

The report of the all-volunteer, bi-partisan commission, "A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer," highlights Alaska's violent crime epidemic. This includes a domestic violence rate 10 times the national average and sexual assault rates 12 times higher. It's a crisis in the Bush, but also in Anchorage and other cities where families flee when village life becomes unbearable. Where criminals keep victimizing women and children because they were never held accountable for their crimes back home.

My fellow commissioners and I keep coming back because we're convinced this lack of accountability is something Alaskans can and will fix.

Admittedly, the commission's report concluded that Alaska's current policy is on the wrong track. Many State policies marginalize the potential of Alaska Native Nations to prevent and combat crime in their own communities.

Instead of respecting Tribally based sovereignty and self-government as other states routinely do, Alaska tries to police and judge Native citizens from afar using too few people and resources: Colonialism on the cheap.

If we've learned anything from the Big Government policy failures of the 1960s and '70s, it's that federal and state leaders must help locally elected governments build their own crime-fighting and prevention efforts, not the other way around. Crime control strategies need to be locally tailored and enforced -- and court decisions given full faith and credit by the State -- to be effective.

Yet precisely the opposite often happens in Alaska, which has the nation's most centralized law enforcement system. The commission found, for example, that in 75 Alaska Native Nations, the State asserts exclusive criminal jurisdiction but routinely provides no law enforcement services at all.

Elsewhere there aren't enough Village Public Safety Officers (VPSOs) and other first responders on the ground. The lack of basic infrastructure supporting them in the bush is inexplicable. It's been more than a half-century since statehood, yet there's just one women's shelter in any Alaska Native village and no shelters where children can escape their perpetrators.

Nor should Alaska Troopers -- among the finest public servants anywhere -- be fairly expected to work miracles from afar. When the commission visited the Village of Tanana in October 2012, the Tribal Council told us someone would probably get killed there unless the State helped them boost the capacity of the Village's court system and supported local policing and family protective services. As we talked that day, a repeat violent offender freely roamed Tanana's streets despite Tribal court restraining orders against him, orders the State refused to recognize.

The tribal leaders with whom we met in Tanana and many other villages demanded swift State action so they could do more to help themselves. They wanted recognition and respect, not a handout. They need Tribally based police and courts with the capacity to enforce the civil rights of all Alaskans, Native and non-Native alike.

This same approach already works well in much of the Lower 48, which is why Congress last year recognized Tribal court jurisdiction there by enacting the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA permits Native Nations to enforce laws criminalizing domestic violence over all citizens with Tribes' territories so long as their courts enforce defendants' constitutional rights.

This is the same Tanana where Seargent Scott Johnson and Trooper Gabe Rich were brutally murdered in Tanana last May 1st while responding to an earlier threat against an unarmed VPSO. In the same state where violence in many villages has decimated the citizenry so that average life expectancies are closer to Haiti's than the rest of the United States.

So why are we so bullish that times are changing for the better for Alaska Natives and indeed all Alaskans?

It isn't just a growing awareness of the problem, necessary though that is. Plenty of Alaskans, including those who email me daily, are saying that enough is enough.

This past February, Alaska's senior U.S. Senator, Lisa Murkowski -- who co-sponsored VAWA -- declared it now needs to be extended to Alaska Native Nations. Both Alaska's Senators are now vowing to make that happen.

This could be a watershed. Recognizing Alaska Native Nations' power over all citizens to bring perpetrators of domestic violence to justice will, over time, confirm and accelerate the larger trend in Alaska and across the country to help Native Nations make and enforce their own laws. Where that's already happened elsewhere, the commission documented that violent crime rates have gone down. The same can happen in Alaska.

In recent years, the State has insisted that Alaska Native Nations lack any territorial sovereignty, or legal control over their lands -- a conclusion contradicted by Federal law, as the commission's report and previous studies by Alaska's own experts make clear. Extending VAWA to Alaska, however, will make it essential for the State and Alaska Native villages to determine jointly -- on a government-to-government basis -- the precise boundaries in which tribes' have civil and criminal jurisdiction to make and enforce their own domestic violence laws over Native and non-Native people living and working there.

This line-drawing can happen in many different ways -- by negotiating inter-governmental agreements between Native Nations and the State, for example -- and need not replicate the Indian reservation system in the Lower 48, as is sometimes mistakenly suggested.

Once territorial lines are drawn for VAWA purposes, they can be enforced not by State fiat or decree, but through a process of give-and-take based on mutual recognition and respect. Both sides will have a seat at the table. State policy will begin to shift toward building more Tribally based capacity for self-governance in order to keep the peace and respect everyone's civil rights.

Looking forward, as such jurisdictional lines are drawn between the State and Alaska Native Nations as VAWA requires, those same territorial boundaries can be used for other public safety purposes -- to combat the scourage of drugs and alcohol and host of other ills plaguing the bush and radiating into the cities.

Thanks in part to VAWA, a much brighter future than the old Colonial model, and the violence it begets -- a vision worthy of Alaska's incredibly rich culture, history and values. It will be done the Alaska way -- not imposed by outsiders. But it can and we believe will be accomplished. It will be a privilege to keep coming back to Alaska and see how much you will keep achieving by working together.

Troy A. Eid is the former U.S. Attorney for Colorado under President George W. Bush and chaired the Indian Law and Order Commission.