Safety and justice systems in rural Alaska are the worst in the United States, according to a recently released report by the Indian Law and Order Commission. Alaska is the only state in the report to be singled out with its own section detailing inadequate justice systems and law enforcement in rural areas.
The commission harshly criticizes the State of Alaska in the report for failing to provide law enforcement resources in villages across the state. The commission also calls on the state to make quick and meaningful changes in how it deals with crime in rural communities.
The report begins by quoting a disclaimer in the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 that says nothing in the act “ ... limits, alters, expands, or diminishes the civil or criminal jurisdiction of the State of Alaska, any subdivision of the State of Alaska, or any Indian tribe in that State.”
That Alaska exemption and whether or not Alaska can legally be defined as Indian country is at the heart of the matter. Alaska’s Attorney General Michael Geraghty submitted a 15-page letter to the commission that was included in the report appealing to the commission to consider “Alaska’s uniqueness” in that Indian country doesn’t exist in Alaska.
Natalie Landreth, an Anchorage-based attorney for the Native American Rights fund, maintains that Alaska’s tribes should not be exempt from policies affecting Indian country, and the commission agrees with her.
“... Problems in Alaska are so severe and the number of Alaska Native communities affected so large, that continuing to exempt the State from national policy change is wrong,” the report states. “It sets Alaska apart from the progress that has become possible in the rest of Indian country. The public safety issues in Alaska — and the law and policy at the root of those problems — beg to be addressed. These are no longer just Alaska’s issues. They are national issues.”
Indian country is defined as “all land within the limits of any Indian reservation”, “all dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States”, and “all Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished.”
The state argued in the U.S. Supreme Court case Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 effectively eliminated Indian country in Alaska, with the exception of the Annette Island reservation in Southeast Alaska. While the state won the case, the commission doesn’t agree that the decision exempts Alaska Native town site land or Alaska Native allotments from Indian country. The commission points out that the Secretary of the Interior is capable of taking land into trust for Alaska Native communities.
The commission also says in its report that some municipalities in Alaska already recognize “exclusive operation of Native law and law enforcement within overlapping municipal and village boundaries.”
Gov. Sean Parnell announced at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention in October that he was considering a plan that would allow tribal courts, instead of state judges, to handle domestic violence cases and some alcohol-related crimes. Some at the convention criticized the announcement.
General counsel for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, Natasha Singh, said to the delegation the day after the announcement that Alaska Natives should know about the Parks v. Simmonds case currently in the Alaska Supreme Court. The case pits the state against the village of Minto, just north of Fairbanks. The case seeks to void the Minto tribal court ruling that declared Edward Parks an unfit parent. Parks was convicted earlier this year for the kidnapping and brutal assault of his girlfriend. The state argues that Parks was denied his due process rights, not that he’s a fit parent, and that the decision to terminate his parental rights should be decided by a state court.
“Our tribal courts do provide the due process afforded under the United States Constitution. We seek to be fair and we are fair,” Singh said to the delegation during the convention. “Now, mistakes are made just like mistakes are made in state and federal courts and we know as Alaska Natives what happens when you’re not fair in court. We know from cases like the Fairbanks Four when our brothers are wrongfully convicted. Our tribal courts go out of their way to provide due process and fairness because we know what it’s like not to be provided those rights.”
While the details of the governor’s proposed agreement with tribal courts have not been made public, Parnell did say during his announcement that offenders would have the option to be tried in a tribal court. If they refused to be tried in a tribal court, the case would be handed over to the state, which would then decide whether to prosecute.
Attorney General Geraghty said that he does want to work with the tribal courts; however, he maintains that tribes in Alaska don’t have a land base to claim tribal court sovereignty.
“The people who live in these villages are citizens of the state of Alaska,” Geraghty said. “They have constitutional rights. They have the right to a jury trial. They have a right to counsel. They have constitutional protections. Those aren’t forfeited because you live in a village, whether you’re a member of the tribe or a non-member.”
Landreth, the attorney for NARF, believes there are two major problems with the governor’s proposal. The first is that the offender would have to agree to be tried in a tribal court.
“The idea that someone has to agree to submit to some form of restitution for a wrong they’ve committed is fundamentally an insult to jurisdiction,” Landreth said. “Imagine if someone were pulled over for drunk driving in Anchorage and (the cop) said, ‘Okay we’re going to prosecute you for drunk driving, but we need you to sign this consent form to be prosecuted.’ It really weakens your authority over people because so many of them can simply say ‘no.’”
The other issue is more fundamental. Landreth believes that the state doesn’t quite understand how tribal courts operate. She said that she doesn’t know of any tribal court decisions in Alaska in which someone’s constitutional rights were violated.
“Tribal courts are so much more open in terms of allowing people to say what they want, bring whatever evidence they want, bring whatever witnesses they want and talk for as long as they want,” Landreth said. “We don’t see constitutional violations or things that would look like constitutional violations and I’m not sure what problem they’re addressing that talking point to.”
Statistics cited in the Indian Law and Order Commission’s report
• Of the 76 substance abuse treatment and/or mental health treatment centers in the State, most are in southern and southeastern Alaska, with approximately one-third in Anchorage alone; for residents of southwestern, central, and northern Alaska, help is typically provided a very long way from home.
• Based on their proportion of the overall State population, Alaska Native women are over-represented in the domestic violence victim population by 250 percent; they comprise 19 percent of the population, but 47 percent of reported rape victims.
• On average, in 2003-2004 an Alaska Native female became a victim of reported sexual assault or of child sexual abuse every 29.8 hours, as compared to once every 46.6 hours for non-Native females. Victimization rates, which take account of underlying population proportions, are even more dissimilar: the rate of sexual violence victimization among Alaska Native women was at least seven times the non-Native rate.
• In Tribal villages and Native communities (excluding the urban Native population), problems are even more severe. Women have reported rates of domestic violence up to 10 times higher than in the rest of the United States and physical assault victimization rates up to 12 times higher.
• During the period 2004-2007, Alaska Natives were 2.5 times more likely to die by homicide than Alaskans who reported “White” as their race, and 2.9 times more likely to die by homicide than all Whites in the United States.
• Alaska Natives’ representation in the Alaska prison and jail population is twice their representation in the general population (36 percent versus 19 percent). Nearly 20 percent of the Alaska Natives under supervision by the Alaska State Department of Corrections are housed out of State, nearly all at Hudson Correctional Facility in New York State — 4,419 road miles from Anchorage.
• In Fairbanks, the city that serves a large rural and Tribal village population, Alaska Native youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system are four times more likely than non-Natives to be referred to juvenile court and three times more likely to be sentenced to confinement.
• The suicide rate among Alaska Natives is almost four times the U.S. general population rate, and is at least six times the national average in some parts of the state.
• In 2011, over 50 percent of the 4,499 reports of maltreatment substantiated by Alaska’s child protective services and over 60 percent of the 769 children removed from their homes were Alaska Native children.
• More than 95 percent of all crimes committed in rural Alaska can be attributed to alcohol.
• The alcohol abuse-related mortality rate was 38.7 per 100,000 for Alaska Natives over the period 2004-2008, 16.1 times higher than rate for the U.S. White population over the same period.