Study faults justice system for Alaska Natives

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The public safety and justice system in Alaska Native villages is the worst in Indian Country, a bipartisan commission has concluded in a report.

Centralized, top-down law enforcement and state governance neglects large areas of Alaska, resulting in Third World conditions and high rates of domestic violence, suicide and alcohol abuse, the Indian Law and Order Commission report found.

“It’s just deeply troubling to go to a place where people are not protected,” said commission Chairman Troy Eid, former U.S. attorney in Colorado.

The report released Tuesday includes recommendations for public safety in tribal communities across the U.S., but has a chapter devoted solely to Alaska. It says the approach to public safety in the state’s tribal communities creates and reinforces discriminatory attitudes about Alaska Natives and the tribes’ governing capabilities.

Many Alaska villages are remote and not connected to the state’s road system. At least 75 have no law enforcement presence, and only one has a domestic violence shelter, the report said. In addition, the state’s village public safety program has been understaffed, underfunded and inappropriately unarmed.

“As long as the system that helped create the problems is allowed to persist, the general public will be tempted to assume that the fault lies with the victims — when instead, Alaska Natives and Alaska Native tribal governments have had relatively little say in the way crime and justice are addressed in their communities,” the report said.

Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty defended the state in a 15-page letter included in the report. Alaska could do more for villages, he said Wednesday, but the conditions are improving under Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration.

Geraghty told the Anchorage Daily News ( ) that the administration sent a proposal to a coalition of 42 tribal villages Tuesday that would allow the villages to hear misdemeanor cases on civil matters that carry no jail time, but only if defendants agreed to be judged by trial courts. He refused to provide a copy to the Anchorage Daily News.

“This governor, I would submit, has done more than any governor in recent memory to try to advance public safety in these communities,” Geraghty said.

Parnell has increased state spending for village public safety officers and rural Alaska State Troopers, Geraghty said.

The report noted an attempt by Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe to incorporate traditional Native practices in sentencing, which it called innovative, impressive and welcome. But the report said it falls short of what truly is needed. The commissioners said Alaska’s state government should be working in greater collaboration with Alaska Native tribes.

“The immediate and overriding need is for a criminal justice system that fully recognizes, respects and empowers their governments,” the commissioners wrote.

Congress created the commission in 2010 through the Tribal Law and Order Act, which is aimed at combating violent crime in Indian Country. Three of its nine members are appointed by the president, and six by Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.

The panel was directed to conduct a “comprehensive study of criminal justice relating to Indian Country” with recommendations to reduce crime and rehabilitate offenders.

The commission, which finishes its official work in January, suggested the conditions will lead to an effort in Congress to expand Indian Country in Alaska. The state’s governors have said that would encroach on Alaska’s state rights.

The report, “Strengthening Justice for Native America: A roadmap,” was released a day ahead of the White House Tribal Nations Conference. The recommendations now go to Congress and the president.

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