Panel: Rural justice system needs work

Posted: Friday, October 24, 2003

ANCHORAGE - The justice system in rural Alaska is a patchwork of programs that covers only some communities despite higher-than-average crime rates in the Bush, according to speakers at a daylong summit focusing on rural law enforcement.

The gathering, which highlighted successes and failures of the system, was sponsored by the Alaska Federation of Natives, which is meeting this week in Anchorage.

Programs ranging from Village Public Safety Officers to state magistrates to tribal courts are in doubt, said many of the 40-plus tribal, state and federal representatives on the panel.

State funding is declining, while Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, has proposed to channel tribal funding to state or regional organizations, a proposal that many said threatens the viability of individual tribes.

Those threats spurred the meeting, held in conjunction with the annual convention of AFN in Anchorage this week.

Much of the discussion revolved around the Village Public Safety Officer program, which has shrunk from 124 officers at its peak in the 1980s to about 65 officers now. VPSOs often are the only law enforcement in a village, and many panel participants praised their value.

But the program is fraught with problems, said University of Alaska Anchorage professor Darryl Wood. His study found that officers are paid so little that many are eligible for food stamps. They can't carry weapons, yet often they are called to handle armed and dangerous individuals. The turnover rate averaged 35 percent a year during the mid-1990s, and it takes an average of four to five months to replace officers who quit.

Alaska Attorney General Gregg Renkes said the state has no plans to kill the VPSO program, nor can it afford to spend more on it. But revisions are likely, he said, particularly in the administration. The state pays more than $1 million a year to nonprofit tribal consortiums that administer the program. The money would be better spent on additional officers, he said.

Renkes called for a broad revision of justice programs in rural Alaska.

"Funding has shaped the justice system, but that's the tail wagging the dog," he said.

He called for a system that includes tribal, state and federal entities, including tribal courts, but with agreements on the limits of tribal authority.

One potential model is that of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Vernon White, assistant commissioner of the Canadian national police force, clearly intrigued many panel members as he described his system.

The Mounties assign two officers to every community, and see it as a failure when they send someone to jail. Officers must spend time in their local schools and participate in community activities in hopes of encouraging indigenous residents of northern Canada to sign on to the RCMP, White said.

"We want the aboriginal peoples to see themselves in that uniform," he said.

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