Alaska editorial: Alaska villages need better justice system

Posted: Thursday, June 23, 2005

The following editorial appeared first in the Anchorage Daily News:

Since last fall, U.S. Attorney for Alaska Tim Burgess has gotten an education about the desperate need for better law enforcement and justice in the state's rural communities.

He is co-chairman of the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission, created by Congress at the urging of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. The commission held hearings around the state and is developing recommendations.

"We've heard a lot of painful, personal stories," he told the Daily News editorial board last week. "People want help. They don't want to hear arguments about who has jurisdiction" to enforce laws and handle cases.

Mr. Burgess knew alcohol abuse was a long-standing problem in the Bush but said he also was struck by the wide use of illegal drugs, especially methamphetamine. He noted that two schoolteachers in Barrow recently were busted on meth charges.

Gambling is another addiction hurting many rural families, Mr. Burgess said. As with alcohol or drugs, it sucks away money that should be supporting families. In one village the local bingo operation refused to take the night off during a crisis visit by suicide prevention counselors.

Many communities have no law enforcement presence at all, Mr. Burgess noted. "Where there is no (village public safety officer) and no troopers, there is just a higher bar for what people can get away with."

Police coverage in the Bush is a hot subject of dispute these days. Native advocates recently lost a lawsuit alleging that the VPSO program is a discriminatory, separate-and-unequal substitute for the kind of law enforcement enjoyed by communities on the road system.

VPSOs don't carry guns and aren't supposed to investigate serious crimes. In bad weather, it can take troopers hours or sometimes days to respond to a serious crime in a village. VPSO coverage is thinner than it used to be. Low pay and high stress cause a lot of turnover in VPSO ranks.

Those shortcomings have some Native communities looking to take care of their own needs through tribal police and tribal courts. Tribal aid comes through the federal government, so Native villages don't have to rely on the urban-dominated state Legislature to spend more money on law enforcement needs. However, the state generally resists Native moves to expand tribal authority in Alaska.

Arguments over state vs. tribal justice solutions could sidetrack the rural justice commission's work. But U.S. Attorney Burgess says the panel is well aware of the pitfalls.

"We're trying to identify areas of consensus," he said. "There are some encouraging possibilities."

There is no more fundamental task of government than protecting public safety. While there are plenty of logistical challenges to improving Bush law enforcement, they can't be an excuse for inaction. We hope the rural justice commission can produce consensus recommendations that produce a higher level of safety for rural Alaskans.

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