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How much power should Native tribal courts exercise in rural Alaska?

Dermot Cole
Gov. Sean Parnell interacts with students from Manokotak through video conferencing during the first day of the 2013 Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Fairbanks on Thursday. Loren Holmes photo

FAIRBANKS — The Alaska Federation of Natives and Gov. Sean Parnell agree there is a role for tribal courts in administering village justice, though they have not yet agreed on exactly how much power those courts should exercise.

AFN leaders met with Parnell in September, asking if the state would enter agreements with tribal courts to deal more effectively with alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and suicide.  “The simple answer is yes,” Gov. Sean Parnell told the AFN convention during its opening session on Thursday.

The Department of Law plans to start talks in the next two weeks to specify the list of offenses falling under the jurisdiction of tribal courts.

Parnell, with his entire cabinet seated in the second and third rows of the arena, detailed actions his administration has taken or plan to take on education, the economy and public safety.

Delegates from across Alaska gave him a polite reception, showing the most enthusiasm when the screens behind the stage lit up with the faces of students from Manokotak, a village 347 miles southwest of Anchorage and 25 miles from Dillingham. The live two-way video between the Carlson Center and the village school was an example, Parnell said, of the increased digital learning and distance education he wants to champion.

He said he wants a change in the administration of village justice, saying he agrees with AFN leaders that “tribes can often provide local, culturally relevant justice services. We agreed that the rights of both victims and alleged offenders would be respected in tribal courts,” he said.

Offender agreement necessary

He said the state plans to authorize tribal courts to deal with certain alcohol and domestic-violence offenses, allowing the accused the option of seeking tribal justice through a civil proceeding. But this would be entirely voluntary, not mandatory. “If the offender does not consent, the case would go to the Alaska State Troopers office for screening and potential prosecution,” Parnell said.

Under a second initiative, villages that have banned alcohol would be able to require community service punishments for alcohol possession violations.

“So with tribal courts being given the green light by the state to handle more alcohol and domestic violence cases, and with a new tool for communities to address unlawful alcohol possession, we can better assure safer communities,” he said.

During her address, AFN President Julie Kitka said the existing public safety system “does not effectively serve vast areas of the state.” She said AFN has long supported giving tribal courts the power to make local decisions because of the lack of local law enforcement in rural Alaska and the lack of access to swift state court proceedings.

Kitka said that when AFN learned that Parnell had opposed proposed federal amendments dealing with expanded tribal authority, it asked for the September meeting. She said AFN is still backing a federal bill.

“At a minimum, the legislation should include a demonstration project in the Office of Tribal Justice within the U.S. Department of Justice that recognizes tribal authority to handle civil matters related to drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and child abuse locally, implementation of tribal laws and enforcement by tribal courts,” she said.

Expanded federal involvement?

Kitka said AFN was glad that Parnell considered the arguments and has “come out with some decisions today.”

But she said that there is a role for expanded federal involvement in tribal court jurisdiction.

“Tribal courts in Alaska need to be armed with the ability to stop violence in early stages, equipping law enforcement in the villages and empowering Alaska’s tribes to address these issues as necessary to fill the gap of local and state authority and ensure domestic safety for Native women in Alaska,” she said.

When Congress renewed the Violence Against Women Act this year, the tribal jurisdiction provisions that applied in the Lower 48 did not extend to Alaska.

On Aug. 1, Alaska Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski introduced a bill, "The Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act," that encourages the state to enter agreements with tribes to transfer enforcement duties for drug and alcohol misdemeanors to tribes.

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @DermotMCole