Six years ago, the Alaska Judicial Council made access to justice services in rural Alaska its top research priority. At that time more than one hundred villages throughout the state lacked resident justice services beyond the presence of a Village Peace Officer (VPO) or a Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO). Relatively few had a resident magistrate or trooper. Most probation officers, state court judges, attorneys and other justice personnel worked out of hub communities, traveling to smaller communities as needed and as weather permitted. Many smaller communities felt strongly that, in order to prevent problems from escalating, they needed to respond more quickly to local disputes than was possible if they worked directly through the state's justice system. This situation had existed for decades, but in 1987, because of one of the worst economic situations in Alaska's history, no additional funds were available to respond to rural justice needs and existing programs were being cut back. The Judicial Council wanted to explore the rural justice situation in all aspects and work with rural communities, as needed, to create solutions.
By 1993, the picture had changed dramatically. Now more than one hundred tribal courts and councils provide services to residents of their communities. In the context of increasing self-governance, most regional Native non-profit corporations offer assistance to the villages in their areas to develop tribal courts or councils. In spring 1993, the eleven-year-old Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) program became, under statute, a part of the Department of Public Safety, thus giving it more certain funding status. Also in spring 1993, Cook Inlet Region, Inc., a Native profit-making corporation, took the initial steps to establish a Native justice center. In addition, in April 1993, the joint state-federal Alaska Native Commission's Governance Task Force heard testimony that state and local governments throughout Alaska worked informally, but frequently, with tribal courts and councils to resolve disputes involving families and children and criminal and quasi-criminal matters, to supervise probationers, and to assist in law enforcement.
What has changed during the past six years? Above all, local communities have taken the initiative to create their own organizations to resolve disputes. In addition, an increasing number of interactions have begun to take place among organizations such as the University of Alaska (both the Anchorage and Fairbanks branches), the Judicial Council, the courts, and the state's executive branch agencies, especially those working with families and children. In 1987, a number of tribal courts and councils had been resolving disputes for some years, and VPSOs had been working with them to enforce local ordinances, supervise probationers and resolve disputes informally. From 1987 through 1990 the governor's office worked actively to encourage continued development of such local dispute resolution. In addition, the federal government, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, increased funding and support for tribal courts. In 1987, some regional non-profits - Tanana Chiefs in particular - already had been actively helping villages to draft and enforce ordinances. Now, in 1993, most other regional Native non-profits have initiated formal or informal programs to encourage local dispute resolution, whether through tribal courts or through tribal councils.
The Alaska Judicial Council has documented this increased attention to rural justice in a series of reports. The first report, published in 1991, presented a bibliography of selected rural justice materials. The second, which was funded by the State Justice Institute and published in 1992, evaluated the Minto and Sitka tribal courts and the PACT conciliation organization in Barrow and analyzed the Indian law applicable to tribal courts in Alaska. The third, published this summer, described the roots of tribal justice in Alaska and interactions among state agencies, tribal councils and courts and provided names and addresses for those organizations throughout the state which have been identified as offering dispute resolution services.
The evaluation of the Minto and Sitka tribal courts and PACT, a non-profit conciliation organization in Barrow (Resolving Disputes Locally: Alternatives for Rural Alaska, 1992), revealed that low-cost, volunteer-staffed organizations could respond to local needs by resolving disputes among neighbors, handling children's and family cases, and enforcing local ordinances. The two tribal courts served non-Natives as well as Natives, either because the non-Natives were related through marriage to Natives or because they lived in the community. Compliance with the decisions or processes of all three organizations was voluntary for all parties, but did not appear to present a problem for non-Natives.
The organizations not only served a wide range of residents, they also appeared, in some instances, to save the state money. The Fairbanks District Attorney's office reported no misdemeanor prosecutions from Minto for several years and only a few felony prosecutions. In contrast, this office prosecuted numerous misdemeanor and felony charges from other interior villages. In Barrow, the PACT organization handled landlord-tenant and small claims cases which might otherwise have gone to the state court. In Sitka, the tribal court handled many cases involving children from the tribe. The Judicial Council found that the local organizations had established informal, yet strong, relationships with a number of state agencies.
Resolving Disputes Locally: A Statewide Report and Directory (1993) expanded the scope of the council's documentation of the range and extent of dispute resolution activity to include every region of the state. The Council found that, throughout the state, tribal councils and tribal courts work on Indian Child Welfare Act cases, handle traditional adoptions, enforce local ordinances, especially those relating to alcohol control and minor criminal matters, and maintain community harmony. As was the case in the three communities evaluated in the earlier report, parties participate in tribal court or tribal council proceedings voluntarily, although social pressures to do so may play some role. The actions of tribal courts and councils range from imposing small fines, to requiring community work service, to asking offenders to leave the community. In family cases, council members or tribal judges may offer parenting advice or may help decide adoption or foster care placements. If offenders are unwilling to pay fines or participate in recommended solutions, villagers ask for assistance from state agencies.
Some tribal courts or councils handle only one or two types of cases, while others cover a wider range. Relatively few villages maintain tribal courts distinct from their village councils. More commonly, the council performs legislative, executive and adjudicative functions as the need arises. When performing judicial functions, councils typically meet as a group to consider the appropriate response to a situation. The councils might use the same procedures for legislative/executive functions and for adjudicative functions, or they might adopt different procedures for adjudication of cases.
Where tribal councils have established separate tribal courts, judges have often been elected to the court, typically sitting in groups of three or more rather than singly. Many tribal courts have elders as judges, but in some areas, separate elders' councils advise the courts and councils. A few tribal organizations have planned regional and appellate courts, but none were operating actively at the time of the assembly of the Judicial Council's directory.
The tribal courts and councils constitute an informal network of organizations that routinely interact with state justice system agencies such as the court system, troopers and VPSOs, prosecutors, public defenders, and the Division of Family and Youth Services. Nearly always, arrangements are worked out on a case-by-case basis with state agency personnel and judges. Despite this informality, however, many of the relationships have continued over a decade of work. The Judicial Council directory documents numerous instances of cooperation between the state and tribal organizations. In child neglect cases state social workers have exchanged information with tribal social workers about appropriate foster care and other needs. Other state social workers have worked through tribal courts and councils to secure the cooperation of the affected family, to monitor the family's progress, and to report problems to the social worker. Some tribal courts and councils have assisted the state by supervising sentenced offenders doing community work service or on probation or parole in their home town. Prosecutors' offices note that communities with strong tribal courts and councils typically have very few offenders in the criminal justice system. This suggests that local organizations can be effective in reducing state costs.
As a result of its findings, the Judicial Council concluded that such cooperation permits all the groups involved to serve the needs of local residents more appropriately and efficiently. Both state and local tribal organizations would benefit from increasing and formalizing their cooperative dispute resolution efforts. The local institutions can handle many types of cases or can specialize, depending on the needs of the area and the people available to help with the organization. The local institutions can also try new programs, such as victim-offender mediation. The Judicial Council has encouraged the governor and legislature to support and further the efforts of state agencies and tribal courts and other organizations to resolve disputes locally, especially because of the state's inability to pay for justice services in many areas. State courts, social workers, and other justice system professionals have been urged to further their interactions with tribal courts and councils. The Judicial Council has also recommended that Native organizations support and collaborate fully with local initiatives for resolving disputes at a community level.
Teresa W. Carns is senior staff associate with the Alaska Judicial Council.