The community of Holy Cross is looking for tribal solutions to their public safety issues. While the community is still trying to fill a tribal police officer position that has been vacant for the past year, they are also operating a tribal court through a civil diversion agreement with the State of Alaska.
Eugene Paul, tribal court judge and Chief of Holy Cross, says most people who end up before the community’s seven-person tribal council aren’t people who have committed violent felonies or assaults, but those who have “disturbed the peace”. The court can hear one exception to that rule: assault in the 4th degree, where injury is caused by neglect or criminal negligence.
The tribal court in Holy Cross gives offenders a chance to be tried and work through solutions with people from their own community rather than the outside. For a community like Holy Cross, the nearest courthouse is Aniak, a 25-minute plane ride away.
Tribal court sessions are private. The court, consisting of seven elected judges, meets in a round-table discussion and will hear all involved parties separately to ensure a system of due process. Sometimes witnesses may be summoned.
According to Paul most people summoned to the court just need a little encouragement and help. The Council will decide a sentence and he says most of the time that’s to help people with “getting their life in order.”
Through something called a civil diversion agreement with the State of Alaska, tribes are able to hear and sentence certain “low-level” crimes, according to Alex Cleghorn, the Alaska Native Justice Center Legal and Policy expert. He explains what diversion means from a legal standpoint.
“Instead of going to criminal court where you’re going to end up with a conviction, someone’s given an opportunity to divert from that process and go address the circumstances in a different way,” Cleghorn said. “The civil diversion agreements were designed for the state of Alaska to enter into the agreement with individual tribes to divert eligible folks, not just tribal citizens but tribal and non-tribal citizens from state court proceedings to tribal court for civil sanctions.”
Tribal Administrator Tess Paul says they got a civil diversion in January of 2019.
Through the agreement, if a non-tribal member living in the community consents to being heard in tribal court, they are eligible to have their case heard by the court. Consent is also required for tribal members: anyone can decide they would rather be tried in state criminal court.
At times, the sentencing is straightforward, like making someone pay the court a fine or impounding the ATV of someone convicted of a DUI. The court has also put people in alcohol rehabilitation as a result of an offense.
Paul says most of the sentencing revolves around community service and making those “peace disturbers” feel included again. Recently, the court made a group of youths who had done some vandalism clean the village cemetery.
“It was really uplifting for them to do something for their community and a lot of people really thanked them even though they did something wrong.” Paul said. “It really made them feel better.”
That’s one example of how Paul sees the court benefitting the community. The youth felt engaged and he hasn’t seen them again in court, so far.
In Holy Cross, by relying on tribal court instead of the state court system, offenders and sentenced criminals don’t automatically build a criminal record or rap sheet for their offenses. Paul says the court has been called at least monthly and hasn’t been seeing repeat offenders since they started working under a civil diversion agreement in January.
Through the Tanana Chiefs Conference, Holy Cross has been working on a self-governance plan for the past few years. Now, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs funding, they’ve trained their tribal court judges and hired a tribal court clerk. But there’s still anxiety about the court’s future.
“The funding for the court, the BIA Tribal Court, is not a given every year,” Paul said.
She said they’re still waiting to hear back from the BIA about whether they’ll have funding to keep the tribal court going for next year.