Opinions

Expanding pro-bono legal services as part of the public safety solution

The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica spent the year reporting on a public safety crisis in rural Alaska. Amid the coverage, U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared the problems to be a national emergency.

What comes next? We asked Alaska public officials, law enforcement and village residents for their specific suggestions for improving public safety. Read all the responses here. More will be added in coming days.


As a U.S senator for Alaska and the executive director of Alaska Legal Services — the only provider of free, comprehensive legal services to low-income Alaskans with offices in Alaska’s rural communities — we appreciate journalist Kyle Hopkins’ coverage of the significant public safety challenges in rural Alaska. We also commend the Anchorage Daily News for publishing this excellent series and calling national attention to an issue that has plagued Alaska for decades.

As we all know — and as the series of articles in the ADN has made clear — there are no easy solutions to fixing our public safety challenges. Most would agree that we need more rural public safety officers, we need more victim advocates and services, like shelters, and we need a shift in culture. In our respective roles, we support all of these potential solutions.

Thankfully, in terms of financial resources, the Department of Justice under Attorney General Bill Barr recently announced that Alaska will be receiving a historic $59 million for public safety in rural Alaska. Barr also just launched a comprehensive Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative that is aimed at increasing cooperation at all levels of law enforcement to hopefully solve many of the anguishing unsolved cases and finally give some sense of justice to families. This is all much-needed progress.

Another solution to this complex problem is something that we’ve worked together on closely for years — providing more low- and no-cost legal services to Alaskans, particularly victims and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, abuse that directly affects more than 50% of Alaska women. This abuse is devastating for victims and families, but also incredibly destructive for our whole state. It saps our energy and leaves deep, permanent scars across generations. We believe that we will never live up to our state’s potential if we don’t work together to stop this.

Why focus on legal services as a solution? Experts agree that securing a lawyer for a victim is one of the most effective ways to get her out of a dangerous situation and into a shelter or safe housing arrangement with medical care. Studies have shown that when abuse victims are represented by an attorney, their ability to break out of the cycle of violence increases dramatically. For example, one study found that 83% of victims represented by an attorney were able to obtain a protective order compared to just 32% of victims without an attorney.

When Sullivan was Alaska’s attorney general more than 10 years ago, he worked closely with Alaska Legal Services to make stemming the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault a top priority. Together, we held pro-bono legal summits to enlist lawyers to provide services to victims and survivors free of charge. By 2014, 107 cases were handled by volunteer attorneys, providing thousands of hours of volunteer legal assistance to victims who couldn’t pay for them.

Recently, we worked closely together on the implementation of the bipartisan POWER Act, Sullivan’s bill that expands pro-bono legal services for victims and survivors. Last summer, at the Hotel Captain Cook, we were joined by Chief Judge Timothy Burgess, as well as several victim advocate groups and a room full of lawyers, where we held a pro-bono summit — something that was mandated by the POWER Act. It was an incredibly successful summit and we’re hopeful it will lead to more lawyers — we envision an army — taking on these cases across Alaska and the nation.

But there is so much more work to be done. Alaska Legal Services provided background information to Sen. Sullivan about the common challenges our clients face each day going through the legal system, background which informed Sullivan’s recently introduced series of bills called the Choose Respect initiative. This series of bills focus on raising awareness about the scourge of violence, improving the criminal justice system for victims, and dramatically increasing legal representation. The initiative includes a national advertising campaign, an innovative program to issue protective orders, and a statutory right to counsel for victims. Think of this fact. If you’re a perpetrator — a rapist, a stalker — and you’re charged, you get a Sixth Amendment right to counsel, paid for by the government.

If you’ve been a victim, you get nothing. We think those experiencing abuse should get lawyers, too.

Pushing for increased legal representation can sound like an abstraction. But to the people experiencing abuse who have the opportunity to escape their abusive situations because of that help, it can make all the difference in the world, including for their children and their communities.

Let’s take a recent case of someone who we’ll call Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is an elder who lives in rural Alaska. While Elizabeth was staying in Anchorage for a routine medical appointment, her injuries related to domestic violence became apparent to her doctor. Elizabeth was referred by her doctor to an Alaska Legal Services attorney, who helped Elizabeth secure a one-year order of protection from her abuser. With the protective order in place, Elizabeth felt she could safely return to her village and continue to live a productive life in the safety of her own home.

Through access to legal aid and representation of survivors, we see people begin the process of healing. We see children being allowed to stay in healthy environments. We see communities strengthened. We see an integral part of the solution.

Nikole Nelson came to Alaska in 1998 shortly after graduating from Willamette School of Law. She has worked for Alaska Legal Services for the last 20 years. She is currently the Executive Director. Elected in 2014, Sen. Dan Sullivan is Alaska’s junior U.S. senator. He was Alaska’s attorney general under former Gov. Sean Parnell.

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