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September 01, 2015

ABA urges steps to help strengthen Alaska Native families

The ABA urged Congress last month to take steps to help strengthen Alaska Native families by adopting ABA-supported recommendations from Ending Violence so Children Can Thrive, a November 2014 report of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on American Indian/Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence.

An ABA letter, submitted for the record of an Aug. 20 Senate Indian Affairs Committee field hearing in Alaska chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), supported the removal of barriers that currently inhibit the ability of Alaska Native tribes to exercise criminal jurisdiction and utilize criminal remedies as they confront the high rate of violent crime in the state and its impact on children.

“Alaska faces significant challenges related to crime, justice and recidivism,” Murkowski said in her opening statement at the hearing. Noting that the recidivism rates in Alaska are some of the highest in the nation, especially among Alaska Native males, she said, “We must do all we can to ensure that when a young man or woman is released from prison, they have the tools and resources needed to succeed.”

A major purpose of the hearing was to examine how tribal courts might provide a viable alternative to the current system. The advisory committee’s report recommends that the Department of Justice and the Department of Interior provide recurring base funding for Alaska tribes to develop and sustain both civil and criminal tribal courts systems and help with law enforcement. In addition, the state of Alaska should prioritize law enforcement responses and related resources for Alaska tribes and recognize and collaborate with Alaska tribal courts, according to the report.

Witnesses testifying before the committee supported expansion of tribal courts, which currently operate in one third of the 229 Alaska Native tribes, “What is needed is federal legislation which recognizes the authority of our tribal governments to deal in the first instance with issues of local domestic violence, sexual assault and substance abuse,” Tribal Court Judge Natasha Singh testified.

Alaska State Senate Majority Leader John Coghill has introduced state legislation to divert people to tribal courts and to address recidivism.

The Alaska field hearing followed a July 15 hearing on Capitol Hill that focused on the failure of the current justice system to address juvenile justice in Indian country.

In comments submitted for that hearing, ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman expressed support for the juvenile justice recommendations of the November 2013 report of the Indian Law and Order Commission entitled A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer. The comments emphasized the association’s belief that “it is of utmost importance that tribes are empowered with meaningful decision-making authority about their own juvenile justice systems and that greater emphasis is placed on providing alternatives to incarceration and culturally appropriate intervention and support.”

In adopting policies this year supporting both reports, the ABA maintains that adoption of the recommendations would make Native America safer and more just and that the approaches in the reports align with prior ABA policies that have long stood for robust civil rights and meaningful tribal self-determination.

Jerry Gardner, special advisor to the Native American Concerns Committee of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, commented that the ABA is grateful that Congress has recognized the “uniquely challenging” American Indian/Alaska Native juvenile justice and Alaska Native justice issues by holding the hearings and hopes that Congress will follow up with action that will “curb the high levels of violence and its ill effects on American Indian and Alaska Native children.”

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