The Alaska Court System and the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, based in Kenai, are partnering to create a new experimental court -- a reaction to calls from Alaska Native tribes for more authority in the state's criminal justice system.
Alaska Supreme Court Justice Dana Fabe said a state judge and a tribal judge will sit side by side and hear cases in the therapeutic substance abuse court on the Kenai Peninsula. The system is set to begin in March 2016, Fabe said.
Partnering together should allow the criminal justice system to shift toward community solutions, Fabe said.
"This is just the beginning of what we're capable of," she said.
The two judges who will oversee what is being called a joint jurisdictional project include Kenai Superior Court Judge Anna Moran and Kim Sweet, chief judge for the Kenaitze tribe.
Sweet said in a phone interview that the specifics of the court are still being determined. But the judges plan to hear civil and criminal matters.
"The identified participants are children in need of aid cases where either one of parents has a simultaneous criminal case, so people dealing with substance abuse issues, people with long-term jail sentences who have addictions and are already on probation or individuals facing felony convictions," Sweet said.
The procedures of the court are being worked on, Sweet said. The plan currently calls for participants alternating between a tribal and state court. The latter court is more of a discussion where the offender gets to talk, rather than the attorneys, she said.
The partnership was announced during the Justice for Alaska Natives workshop at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage on Thursday.
Fabe, Gregory Razo of CIRI and Terry Schuster of Pew Charitable Trusts, among others, spoke at the workshop.
The two hours of presentations were initially broken up with comments from tribal members from around Alaska. Some called for more authority over how criminals in their communities are dealt with and the establishment of tribal courts. The current justice process isn't working for their family and friends, they said.
Schuster presented data at the workshop showing Alaska Natives make up a large portion of the state's prison population. Natives account for 36 percent of that population but only 15 percent of the state's population. Pew has a team traveling around the state to "see what's broke and what's working" about the prison system.
During Schuster's presentation, several attendants raised their hands to comment, expressing frustration about the status quo. After several comments, Razo said questions would be heard at the end of the workshop.
"You're not the first person to express to the (Alaska Criminal Justice Commission) the idea of tribal justice," Schuster said to one commenter. "We're asking questions about what can work here based on those questions."
Natasha Singh, Tanana Chiefs Conference general counsel, said the organization's 37 tribes all have tribal courts, though not all are active. She encouraged Natives to start tribal courts with or without approval from higher authorities, like the federal government.
"The focus (of tribal courts) is to heal rather than to punish," Singh said.
Still, "It's very important to build the capacity for tribal courts. We need the collaboration," she said.
Referring to the joint court, Sweet said partnerships with the state are important because many Native communities lack resources.
"I think this is a positive step toward mutual respect," she said.