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Should Parnell's 'Choose Respect' campaign be named 'More Jail Time'?

Jim Valcarce
"It’s never been worse to be a young Native male living in Bush Alaska," writes Jim Valcarce. "With mandatory sentencing, more criminal laws and more outsiders to enforce these laws, the 'choose respect' campaign is working to place an entire generation behind bars." Loren Holmes photo

Our Republican governor would like you to think that his “choose respect” campaign is all about the feel-good concept of ending violence. But in reality his actions come down to one thing: more jail. Bush Alaska should be horrified. More jail time, more prosecutors and more criminal laws will not help Bush Alaska, but instead his attack is crippling our youth.

I have worked in Bush Alaska for more than 20 years. I started in Nome working for the public defender agency, and then for a tribal consortium. I worked as a prosecutor in Bethel for almost two years and then moved to my own practice, where I travel and represent those in Bush Alaska. I regularly travel from Barrow to Unalaska, and most people I represent live in small villages off the road system. I’m married to a Yup’ik Eskimo and have three young children enrolled in the local tribe who also attend school in Bush Alaska. I have never been more frightened for their future

Instead of improving education, helping tribes develop their courts or curbing problems like alcohol addiction, our governor has really only given these villages one legacy: more jail time for young Alaska Native males.

More jail time does not, and will not, help the youth of Bush Alaska. 

Mandatory time

Take my friend from Napakiak. He just went to jail for a felony driving while intoxicated, where once again he drank and drove his ATV in the village. He is in his 20s. His house would be called a shack in Anchorage. His first language is Yup’ik, and he was raised dirt-poor by a grandmother because of numerous tragedies involving both parents. He dropped out of school by 10th grade and has addiction problems. But he is a great worker, smart and helps anyone who asks. He is really well liked by everyone in the villages. His sentence by the state of Alaska: two and a half years in jail, largely due to mandatory sentencing that our governor so loves.

Take my friend from Gambell. He is a terrible drinker, whose mind and body shuts down after just a few sips. He is a loving father of five children. His values are exactly the opposite of most urban citizens: He’s non-aggressive, very humble and freely shares everything. He was prosecuted by one of our governor’s rural prosecution unit (to clean up crime in the Bush) and got caught making homebrew. He did not hurt anyone and did not commit any violence, but the outside trooper just found the bucket, and my friend admitted everything. He is also very honest. Under our presumptive sentencing law, his sentence was three years in jail and a $10,000 fine. 

These are typical of the people I represent every day, and none have been made better by our governor’s campaign. Let me tell you exactly why.

Mixed messages

First, jail only works when it’s worse than your home. Running water, good food and entertainment is far better than what most have in their villages. Our governor never goes to Tuluksak or Teller. He needs to see how my Gambell friend lived and how his family now survives. He needs to get out and see that too many of our citizens live in Third World conditions. Until we raise the standard of living in Bush Alaska, jail will never be a deterrent.

One village I’m very familiar with has stopped enforcing state law but has turned to punishing its young men in tribal court. This village could care less what the governor is doing, as they want to enforce their own rules and control their own destiny. One of the reasons given to me: “One week emptying honey buckets is far worse than the luxury of being in jail and eating all that good white-man food.”

Second, jail only works when it is in combination with strong community condemnation. This is the idea that your community has a vested interest in correcting misbehavior. Community condemnation begins with the idea that the village has agreed to all these laws, and wants to punish its citizens for violations. All of the laws the state imposes on these rural areas were passed in a foreign land by foreign people. The principles and values behind the laws rarely apply to Bush Alaska, and I constantly hear the complaint that no one in these communities had a choice for more laws and more jail. Instead, they are simply watching their young people leave for longer periods of time and then hear it’s called “choose respect.”

When my Napakiak and Gambell friends committed their crimes, they were arrested in their villages by white, foreign troopers from the outside. They were taken to a jail run largely by white outsiders. They were then taken outside their village to a court, where each was defended and prosecuted by white outsiders. Finally, they were sentenced by judges, also white, from somewhere else. No one spoke their language, no one from their villages participated, and no one even discussed this crime or its impact on their communities.

Tribal option

Compare this to what happens in tribal court. The offender is taken to a judge or judges who live in the same community and share the same values. The laws are created and imposed by the community. He is lectured by concepts and words that he can actually understand, and then he is shamed, punished and eventually made better by his community members.

Our governor has been one of the fiercest opponents of tribal rights and jurisdiction. His “choose respect” campaign really just wants more jails, more troopers, more prosecutors and more convictions for domestic violence. But without the actual village’s support and input, this arrogant and paternalistic policy will continue to be a terrible failure.

No rehabilitation

Finally, jail does not work because it is not making our youth better. Time and time again, I see that when my young Native clients get of jail they are lazier, angrier and more criminal-like than when they went in.  Jail is not making our youth better — it is destroying their personalities and any chances of living a productive life.

The governor aggressively seeks convictions for domestic violence, regardless of the circumstances. The deals offered by his prosecutors are too good to pass up, and too many plead guilty without attorneys at their first appearance in court. But the results of such plea are devastating — this Native male will now have what’s called a “barrier crime” on his record, which will preclude him from ever working for what little jobs are in town (clinics/schools). These convictions, like jail, are not making Alaskans better.

Our jails are filled with young Native males, and it is not slowing down. Want to know if this “choose respect” campaign is working? Just spend a day at court watching the cases in Bethel, Dillingham, Barrow, Nome or Kotzebue. Or ask anyone who works at any jail in Bush Alaska. They know jail is not making them better, and they know we don’t have enough beds to even keep them in Alaska. Native young men are being sent to Colorado in droves. The cost of this is shocking.

It’s never been worse to be a young Native male living in Bush Alaska. With mandatory sentencing, more criminal laws and more outsiders to enforce these laws, the “choose respect” campaign is working to place an entire generation behind bars.

Choose better

The 2014 election can’t get here fast enough. We can continue on this destructive path, or we can instead spend our resources in improving the living conditions, education and treatment options. We can and must stop opposing tribal jurisdiction and allow tribes and communities to pass and enforce their own laws and sentence their citizens according to their own values. We should not allow any young man to plead to a domestic violence offense until after he has spoken to an attorney. Finally, we must stop passing laws simply because politically it sounds good to be tough on crime and presumptive sentencing, where no option is given to the judge but imposing years of jail time.

The "choose respect" campaign is a failure. My 82-year-old friend from Kipnuk said it best: “State of Alaska created these laws somewhere else. They send people from somewhere else to arrest our young men. They are going away longer and longer to live with the white people. And when they come back they’re worse, and fat.”

Jim Valcarce began his legal work with the Alaska Public Defender Agency in 1993 and was admitted to the bar in 1995. He was one of the attorneys who represented rural villagers in recent sexual abuse cases against priests, which led to more than $200 million in settlements.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.