FAIRBANKS — Sen. Mark Begich has proposed new federal aid to help Alaska Native communities clamp down on alcohol abuse, domestic violence and other social issues.
The government would, under a bill filed last month, boost local law enforcement in a handful of Native tribes through a pilot project. But the measure has drawn cautious reviews from state government and a negative reaction from one Native group.
The plan aims to strengthen tribal court systems, would be specifically focused on social problems — drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect.
State government has already placed an emphasis on similar items, with Gov. Sean Parnell pushing publicly since taking office two years ago to expand the Village Public Safety Officer program.
But Begich’s bill states that, with more than 200 remote villages to serve, the existing public safety network “does not effectively serve” vast rural regions except in response to serious, individual criminal acts. Some have voiced concern about long hours and lack of time off for VPSOs and the bill reads for “many rural Alaska Native villages, there is no local law enforcement presence whatsoever.”
Under the measure, the “Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act,” the U.S. Department of the Interior would oversee the pilot project. Native communities would use federal help to hire village peace officers behind the goal of encouraging local solutions to chronic social problems — all while recognizing state government’s “primary role and responsibility in criminal matters.”
Julie Hasquet, a spokeswoman for Begich, said the bill also aims to strengthen a tribal court system that does not always get the support it wants from state government.
Tribal courts are designed to handle a slate of issues — from child protection, custody and adoption to alcohol regulation and domestic violence — because state law enforcement “only responds to the most serious offenses in the villages, leaving the less serious ones unaddressed,” as put in 1999 by the state Commission on Rural Governance and Empowerment.
Begich, D-Alaska, told reporters Friday he proposed the bill — first submitted in 2010 before last winter’s congressional restart — in response to suggestions from Alaska Native groups. He cited cyclical social problems in rural Alaska and said a new approach with locally-driven solutions could prove more effective than the status quo.
“I still believe, today, that more tools in the box is important,” Begich said. He said the Anchorage youth court system offers an example of successful, outside-the-box efforts used to address public safety issues.
But Parnell said, through spokeswoman Sharon Leighow, the state’s path is working — Alaska has almost doubled the number of filled VPSO positions since mid-2008 and will add more by the end of the year. Leighow also said by email that state agencies worry investments in tribal courts and, through them, an “alternative system of justice,” would open the door to different outcomes than the current system and its constitutional guarantees. She said using “scarce federal dollars” to replicate an existing judicial system and “duplicate law enforcement efforts” may not be ideal policy.
“Perhaps those funds would be better used for prevention programs, treatment of victims or supporting existing law enforcement programs,” she said.
The bill calls for $5 million for officers and half that much for tribal courts programs. Eligible Native groups would share those pots of money and participate for three years, with some villages positioned to stay involved for another two years.
“With such strong people and rich cultural heritage, we know rural Alaska is poised to combat public safety issues if given the proper tools,” Begich said by statement last month. “The problems of unreported abuse and an absence of law enforcement in many communities have existed too long. By listening to our rural communities, Alaska Native leaders and taking a different approach, we can create and sustain safer communities in rural Alaska.”
While the need for more law enforcement in rural Alaska is widely recognized, the topic of tribal sovereignty can be controversial. A decade ago, then-Sen. Ted Stevens landed in hot water by suggesting some Alaska Native groups’ attempts at securing “total jurisdiction” over village matters clashed with the broader interest of building a cohesive criminal justice system statewide.
The comments came during discussion of tribes’ receipt of federal grants. Stevens’ office later said he’d meant that if sovereignty movements were successful they could lead to more claims for the creation of sovereign tribes, more tribal courts, more questions about jurisdiction and less uniformity within the state’s legal system.
David Harrison, executive director for the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, saw other problems. He said his organization has asked Begich’s office to withdraw the bill. He said the organization sees it as a “veiled attempt” to secure government jurisdiction over criminal and civil matters in rural Alaska. Harrison said Native groups believe the state’s constitution would need an amendment before state or federal government can implement law enforcement within tribal jurisdictions. He suggested the rules in Begich’s bill appear to require a tribe to relinquish a measure of authority before it could participate in the grant program, and he said federal lawmakers should try other ways to help indigenous peoples develop and implement their own forms of governance.
“Bottom line ... it is a (veiled) attempt to further the genocidal practices of the United States of America and the state of Alaska against Alaska indigenous peoples,” Harrison wrote by email.
Hasquet said she was unsure who Harrison may have spoken to in Begich’s office regarding his concerns. She said the act has “wide support” in the state “and is endorsed by virtually every tribal organization.”
Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said last month the federal aid would “empower tribes” to improve rural public safety.
“Senator Begich is listening to our Native peoples and we are very pleased with this positive development,” Kitka said by statement.
Hasquet said the Bristol Bay Native Association, Tanana Chiefs Conference, Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Kawerak Inc. have lined up in support of the plan.