OPINION: Alaska must invest more in rural justice

Kyle Hopkins’ recent report on crime and justice in Kotzebue, published Nov. 11, is among the most disturbing Alaska-centered pieces I’ve read in a very long time — previously, Hopkins’ work on “Lawless” helped earn that project a Pulitzer prize. For the purposes of this opinion piece, I am going to assume he reported the facts accurately. The greater question is: What should we deduce from those facts? Clearly, the case results described are as bad as they can be.

At the outset, the tragic deaths of Jennifer Kirk and Susanna Norton highlight the lack of investment the state government puts into investigating rural crime in Alaska. There is modest good news. Federal and state resources are being brought to bear to fight the murdered and missing Indigenous women tragedy. The governor should also get some credit for increasing fiscal year 2023 budgets for rural crime-fighting in the areas of violent crimes and sex crimes. On this issue, when the governor sought additional investments, we legislators were quick to fund those requests.

However, not enough is being done. For example, this past session, funding FY 2024, the governor asked that we fast-track about $1 million to the Public Defender and the Office of Public Advocacy, to help defend cases, a critical function, of course, that would increase under new definitions of “withholding consent.” (Essentially, legal changes championed by Reps. Geran Tarr and Sara Rasmussen — with broad support — made more sexual assault cases viable to bring to trial by removing any onus on victims to fight back against their assailants). On three separate occasions spanning two appropriations bills, I sought to match the defense spending with similar funds for prosecutors. For reasons not fully clear to me, the majority of my House colleagues rejected those proposals. What was missing in my effort? Absent was the failure of the administration to support the amendments.

As a former Kotzebue prosecutor (1999-2001) and a current legislator, I write to offer what broader insights I can, and propose remedies. To begin with, I’ll note this: I was a dedicated public servant in Kotzebue, but also an imperfect one. My predecessor, a retired Air Force JAG officer who went onto a career as an Alaska Superior Court judge, told me that he asked the Department of Law, the attorney general, essentially, to hire a second prosecutor in Kotzebue during his tenure there. When I assumed his workload in 1999, I saw 800 criminal cases filed in the year 2000, with about 100 of those being felony cases. I tried to beat that work back with 80-hour work weeks. Fundamentally, I found that the previous DA in Kotzebue was correct: The workload was absurd. And, like in any profession, errors can occur with that sort of over-the-top exertion and overly quick decision-making.

Before my Kotzebue assignment, I had only completed what amounts to a paid apprenticeship in the Anchorage DA’s office, handling state misdemeanors — frequently cases reduced from felonies — and the Aleutians calendar. I was wet behind the ears — raw, even — when I was assigned to Kotzebue. The region included 10 outer villages from Tikigaq (Point Hope) to Deering, and included 11,000 people in a region the size of Indiana. There, with my boss in distant Nome, I was tasked with moving those 800 cases per year toward disposition.

I knew things were different in Kotzebue right away. A typical misdemeanor in Anchorage resulted in three years of informal probation. Not so in Kotzebue. There, the two judicial officers issued informal periods of probation for just one year. This is not the most materially important difference, and only illustrative. No impugning is intended. Again, things worked differently in rural Alaska.

So, what did I learn? As I’ve already noted, the State of Alaska underinvests in many of its core functions — education jumps to mind — but tops on the list is providing rural justice. Recall that, as one example, for years after the murder of the Utqiagvik prosecutor, the state had no daily, prosecutorial presence in that important community. As a younger legislator, I helped lead the effort to restore an actual office there.


Now, I return to the article and what it can teach us.

While one can read the article as an indictment of criminal justice in Kotzebue — and it’s certainly alarming enough that the temptation is there to censure — I don’t know enough about any difficulties with the evidence to impeach the work of the Kotzebue Police Department, the state prosecutors, and the Alaska Court System. Still, writ large, what’s happened with the featured cases in the Hopkins piece would not be tolerated in my hometown of Anchorage. And, it shouldn’t be tolerated in Kotzebue, either. The article also suggested a sort of small-town coziness, familiarity and apparent lack of intensity when it came to the Kirk-Norton investigations.

Here’s how this relates to an imperfect remedy now, today, for Kotzebue’s completely devastating criminal justice woes: If the administration demanded $2 million for sufficient prosecutors, investigators and troopers for the Northwest Arctic Borough region, much could be done to investigate stale cases and do better at fighting for rural justice in future cases. Added to this should be full state support for the Kotzebue jail and full community assistance to the City of Kotzebue. Village Public Safety Officers in the NANA region need to be paid better, provided housing where they don’t have it, armed and given every bit of training they require.

Further connected to Kotzebue’s tragedies are workforce challenges. Sen. Cathy Giessel and I are working at making public service careers more appealing by reforming pensions. Ample factual data supports that we are, often enough, losing our best and brightest in Alaska to other states where relative salaries and benefits exceed our own. This is part of the Kotzebue challenge, too.

In short, while often insoluble alcohol abuse underlies much of what ails Kotzebue — I saw that firsthand — what Alaska has available at this moment is resources, human and financial. In our “no state taxes allowed” world, a $2 million investment would cost each Alaskan about $3 per person. I think — I know — that Jennifer Kirk and Sue Sue Norton, and the people of Kotzebue, are worth much more than at least that sort of shared investment.

Rep. Andy Josephson represents House District 13 (South Anchorage, Taku and Campbell) in the Alaska Legislature.

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Andy Josephson

Rep. Andy Josephson was elected to the Alaska State House of Representatives in 2012 and represents residents in South Midtown, Taku-Campbell and East Sand Lake.