Begich Proposes Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
New legislation introduced by Democrat Senator Mark Begich aims to help tribes and village communities in Alaska get more control over domestic violence, alcohol and drug crimes. The Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act of 2010 would pick up some of the elements that were cut from the Tribal Law and Order Act that was passed in July. Begich says justice programs set up by tribes allows them to deal with family violence as well as substance abuse crimes.
A proposed amendment to the Tribal Law and Order Act that would have created a $50 million pilot project allowing greater tribal court authority within a community prompted a strongly worded letter of objection from the state. Department of law attorney Rick Svobodny wrote the letter that said the project would threaten state sovereignty and would be litigated immediately. With changes, the proposal eventually gained the approval of the state, but was cut after Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn threatened to scuttle the entire bill over the money for the Alaska project. Begich says the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act attempts to address the high rates of crime in Alaska villages. He says he hopes more information about the chronic problem of crime in remote communities will help the bill gain support in Congress.
Natalie Landreth is an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage, Landreth says Begich’s legislation is leaps and bounds beyond earlier proposals and targets the issue of jurisdiction.
The problems are huge. Alaska Native women suffer rates of sexual assault that are three and a half times higher than the national average. A 2006 report found 95 percent of all crimes committed in rural Alaska involved alcohol. There are at least 200 villages in rural Alaska but only 71 Village Public Safety Officers, leaving many communities with no law enforcement presence and the prospect of possibly waiting days for State Troopers to fly in to deal with criminals.
The Alaska Safe Families and Villages demonstration project would have department of Justice oversight. The program would select up to nine tribes in Alaska to participate at a rate of three per year over a three year period. Selected tribes would stay in for five years. $250,000 per year would go to participating tribes to help support tribal court costs, training, equipment and other expenses. NARF’s Landreth says communities with active tribal courts would be able to choose what type of sanctions they would impose. The bill lays out that these options can include fines, forfeitures, restraining orders and emergency detention. She says although tribes throughout the state could apply for inclusion in the project, some immediately come to mind as good candidates.
Tanana Chiefs Conference in interior Alaska has been working on ways of empowering tribal communities to handle the problems created by drug and alcohol abuse. Lisa Jaeger, is a tribal government specialist for TCC. She says TCC contributed to the planning and supports the bill.
She says it appears the bill has enough checks and balances to put tribes and the state in a good position for dealing with drug and alcohol problems collaboratively. Calls to the State Department of Law for comment were not returned.
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