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Report blames state justice system for lack of public safety in rural Alaska

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- A national report on Native American public safety paints a harsh picture of Alaska village life while delivering harsh criticism of the state.

The Indian Law and Order Commission, in a report released this week, looked at public-safety issues across the nation, with a special focus on issues unique to Alaska.

Looking mostly at rural areas, it blamed the state for such problems as alcoholism, domestic violence and disproportionate levels of both crime victimization and incarceration.

"Why do these grave crime and safety issues persist in Alaska’s tribal communities? Responsibility, it appears, lies primarily with the state’s justice system," the report said.

The commission is federally sponsored, and has bipartisan appointments. Its report is called "A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer."

The solution it advocates is greater tribal sovereignty, including action by Congress to change the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and how courts have interpreted it.

Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty said Wednesday that while there were parts of the report with which he disagreed, he liked the focus on local solutions.

"I agree with the general premise that there's more we can be doing at the tribal level to alleviate the problems that are endemic in these communities," he said.

Alaska is working to delegate to tribal courts new responsibilities, using civil powers to handle some issues. In fact, Gov. Sean Parnell made similar proposals at the recent Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) annual gathering.

Responsibility for criminal law enforcement would remain with the state, however.

That's not challenging tribal sovereignty, Geraghty said, but recognizes land ownership in the state.

"The tribes have some sovereignty already, but they don't have a land base associated with that," he said.

The report said it wanted to create "Indian Country" in Alaska, where lands owned by Alaska Native corporations are completely under Native control.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com