Criminal Justice in the Northwest Arctic Borough

Criminal Justice in the Northwest Arctic Borough

Richard Erlich

"Criminal Justice in the Northwest Arctic Borough" by Richard Erlich. Alaska Justice Forum 13(3): 1, 6-8 (Fall 1996). During the past twenty years, substantial changes in community life have occurred in Northwest Arctic Borough, a predominately Inupiaq Eskimo area on Alaska's northwest coast. This article describes the particularities of justice system issues in the Northwest Arctic Borough based on historical evidence, research and personal observations made from the author's experience as a long-term resident and Superior Court judge.

During the past twenty years, substantial changes in community life have occurred in the Northwest Arctic Borough. This article will describe some of these major social and cultural shifts and will then examine the concurrent changes which have developed in the criminal justice process. The discussion combines historical and research data with personal knowledge; it is not intended to posit direct causal relationships between the social changes and the justice process, but rather to present some of the interrelated patterns.

The communities located within the Northwest Arctic Borough, which was formed in 1986, include Ambler, Buckland, Deering, Kiana, Kivalina, Kobuk, Kotzebue, Noatak, Noorvik, Selawik, and Shungnak (see Figure 1 and Table 1). The current population is approximately 6,700. In the past twenty years the employment structure has shifted from being based primarily on government jobs to being based on private employment. According to the August 1996 edition of Alaska Economic Trends, two local employers - Maniilaq Association and Cominco Alaska, which operates the Red Dog Mine - were among Alaska's 100 largest private employers in 1995. NANA is another large employer in the region. However, despite this increase in employment opportunities, the Northwest Arctic Borough continues to have one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Accordingly, subsistence activities continue to play a major role in the borough's life. The borough is part of the Kotzebue Superior Court venue, which also includes the North Slope Borough community of Point Hope.

Figure 1. Northwest Arctic Borough (map)
Table 1. Northwest Arctic Borough, Demographic Characteristics, 1990 and 1996

Several major, clearly discernible, social changes have altered life in the borough communities over the last twenty years: (1) the establishment of schools in all the villages of the region; (2) the abandonment of multi-generational residences and the introduction of television; and (3) the enactment of local option laws.

Establishment of Schools

Patterns of child-raising have been altered since the establishment of local high schools in the villages. Since the middle 1970s, all village children have been able to receive their K-12 education in their local communities. This means that they do not need to leave their homes during their adolescent years. Prior to that time, children had to leave their families to obtain a high school education.

However, the parents of these village children were educated at boarding schools and were absent from their homes during the long winter months of the school year, or are the first generation of children who experienced year-round schooling in the village. Hence, many of these parents were cut off from observation of continuous, year-round family life in the villages. In essence, the parents and communities have little knowledge regarding adolescent child-rearing practices, because their own experiences were so different. This is not to say that these parents are incapable of raising their children, but only that the presence of ALL children, of ALL ages, year-round, has changed village life.

In many borough villages between forty and fifty per cent of the population is under eighteen (Ambler, 51%; Buckland 52%; Deering, 44%; Kiana, 48%; Kivalina, 46%; Kobuk, 54%; Kotzebue, 39%; Noatak, 40%; Noorvik, 46%; Selawik, 48%; Shungnak, 43%. Alaska Economic Trends, October 1993). The under-eighteen population for the entire state is 31 percent. What this means is that significantly less adult supervision is available. With this large youthful population and a lack of experience in raising adolescents year- round, indicators reflect increased social disruption: high suicide and teenage pregnancy rates. These factors contribute to high rates of general depression. (For further discussion of mental health issues, see American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research 7 (1990). The authors, Minton and Soule, have identified the major categories contributing to sadness as: death (31.5%), alcohol (22.9%), other people (22.6%), and kids (20.3%).)

Housing and Television

Since the 1970s, the increased construction of single family residences in the villages has resulted in splitting apart the multi-generational family. Prior to this, it was common for three generations, with uncles and aunts, to live in the same residence. With the establishment of single family housing, fewer adults are present to supervise children.

Moreover, television has introduced the values of U.S. urban society into these small remote communities. The rural channel has been available in the villages since the 1970s, and by the late 1980s, almost all villages began to have access to cable programming. The changes which TV has introduced can be seen in the styles of adolescent dress - baggy pants, home boy attire - and perhaps more profoundly, in adolescent self- image. For a juvenile today to report that "I am poor" is a reflection of a great change. In the past, residents of these communities did not perceive themselves as poor. Most lived in the same economic circumstances, and "poor" was not defined in dollar terms. Moreover, less time was available to watch television because of the activities demanded by daily needs.

Television has also changed the patterns of socializing in the villages. Before its introduction, people visited each other, they conversed, they played games, they interacted with each other. Although people continue to visit each other, the level of the interaction has changed because of the presence of television. Cable has also contributed to separating the generations, with young people more likely to watch programs significantly different than those their parents watch. In addition, programming provides increased exposure to images of violence and a violent society. (For further discussion of the effects of television, see "Children and Violence," Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy, Spring 1995. The author, John P. Murray, discusses three effects of television: increased aggressive behavior; increased acceptance of violence; and a "mean world" syndrome.)

The Local Option Laws

The communities of the Northwest Arctic Borough have chosen to enact local option laws, which regulate or prohibit the sale of alcohol. In Kotzebue, the importation of alcohol is legal but its sale is prohibited; the other borough communities prohibit both its sale and importation. Point Hope prohibits sale, importation and possession of alcoholic beverages. While the range of effects of the local option laws is complex, requiring study beyond the scope of this article, one significant consequence has been to transform a behavior which was previously a misdemeanor into a felony. Persons charged with selling alcohol without a license in a local option area are charged with a felony offense, while those performing the same action in a non-local option area are only charged with a misdemeanor.

The social and legal changes described above parallel changes in the criminal justice system over the same period. The rest of this article examines the criminal justice system, reviews the case filings over an eleven-year period, and discusses the court process in the Kotzebue Superior Court venue.

Criminal Justice System Resources

Because of significant differences between villages and urban areas, a person who commits a crime in a village community is more likely to be identified, arrested, and brought to court than one in an urban area. The first major difference is the comparatively large police infrastructure in the villages.

In 1994, 19 law enforcement personnel, including Village Public Safety Officers (VPSOs), worked in the Northwest Arctic Borough. (The VPSOs are residents of the village communities. Crimes are reported to them, and they are the first persons on the scene and are responsible for reporting the crime to the Alaska State Troopers.) This is a rate of 2.87 police officers per 1,000 residents. The statewide rate is 1.48 per 1,000 population. It is clear that a significantly greater police presence exists in the rural areas than in the state as a whole. With this increased police presence, the knowledge of the occurrence of criminal events is probably more inclusive than in urban areas. A VPSO present in a village is more likely to be aware of a criminal event and a police response is more probable.

Second, identification of the offender is usually not a problem. Everyone in the villages is acquainted. In contrast, in urban areas, a victim often does not know the perpetrator, making identification a major issue. Finally, compared to the problems involved in an urban setting, apprehension of a village suspect is easier. Village residents, from a cultural sense of cooperation, are often more likely to turn themselves in to the authorities. (It is not unusual for the troopers to send a radio message to a suspect stating that his airfare has been paid to Kotzebue and requesting him to get on the plane.) Moreover, means for leaving a village are limited, making it probable a suspect will remain in town.

In addition to the establishment of the VPSO program, since 1974 the state has expanded the presence of other elements of the justice system. In 1974 Kotzebue had no full-time resident judge, prosecutor, or public defender. In 1996 it has a Superior Court Judge, a magistrate, a prosecutor, and two full-time public defenders, all residing in the community. Prior to this centralization, part-time magistrates presided in several of the villages, with a full-time magistrate in Kotzebue. As a result, most crime at the misdemeanor level was resolved in the villages. With the expanded resources and the procedural rights afforded defendants, this is no longer true.

Case Filings and the Nature of Crime

As Table 2 indicates, a dramatic increase (253%) in the number of felony cases filed in Kotzebue Superior Court occurred between 1983 and 1994. (Between 1983 and 1994, the population for the Northwest Arctic Borough grew by slightly more than 20%. 1983 is used as the base year because the Superior Court in Kotzebue had then been in operation for two years. Also note that figures based on cases filed with the court are used. Both actual numbers and rates computed are probably lower than if the basis were all crimes reported to the police. However, the extent of the variance between the actual number of criminal incidents and court cases filed cannot be estimated for this small a population. In contrast, the total number of misdemeanor cases filed over the same period decreased by almost 30 per cent. Part of this decrease may be due to the enactment of the local option laws. In 1983, the communities of the North Slope Arctic Borough were "wet." Kotzebue had two package liquor stores and three bars. The local option had not yet been put into effect. Now the villages are "dry," and Kotzebue is "damp.")

Table 2. Felony and Misdemeanor Cases Filed, FY83 and FY94

A major factor in the reduction of the Kotzebue misdemeanor caseload is probably the local option selection. FY 83 Kotzebue filings were 685, while FY 94 filings were 476. In FY 83, the total misdemeanor cases filed outside of Kotzebue were 183. In FY 94, that number was 135. At present one magistrate serves Ambler, Kobuk, and Shungnak. A second magistrate serves Selawik, Kiana, and Noorvik. The Point Hope magistrate position has been vacant for the past three years. It is assumed that most of the FY 83 cases were handled by the village magistrate and not transferred to Kotzebue. This does not hold true for the FY 94 cases. Most of the village cases were transferred to Kotzebue but were given a village case number.

However, the increase in the number of felonies may also be related to the enactment of the local option laws, since actions which were formerly classified as misdemeanors are now felonies. Moreover, it is possible that since drinking now takes place in the privacy of the home, violence may escalate in seriousness before outsiders intervene, whereas when bars existed and fights ensued, others could intervene before serious injury occurred.

Table 3 presents the distribution among types of felony cases filed. These data indicate that major felony crimes in the Northwest Arctic Borough are either crimes of violence or property crimes. Although the percentage of violent crime in the borough decreased from FY 83 to FY 94, in absolute numbers case filing increased. In FY 83, 29 cases of violent crime were filed, while in FY 94, 52 cases were filed. In FY 83, 9 cases of property offenses were filed, with 26 cases in FY 94. As a percentage of the total caseload these two categories are significantly higher than in the statewide distribution. In addition, a large increase in Northwest Arctic Borough drug cases has occurred, probably reflecting the inclusion of felony alcohol cases.

Table 3. Distribution of Felony Cases Filed, FY83 and FY94

The increase in violent offenses may be related to several things. First, as already mentioned, people drinking in the privacy of their homes are less likely to be stopped before serious violence ensues. Also, the figures may reflect an increase in the identification and prosecution of sexual offenses.

Table 4 displays the distribution of misdemeanor offenses. The four categories of significance are: violent, nuisance, drug/alcohol and traffic. The percentage distribution for misdemeanor acts of violence is above the state average, with no significant reduction in the number of actual filings between FY 83 and FY 94, again suggesting that the local option laws have not reduced violent crime. The nuisance offenses, disorderly conduct and criminal trespass, have remained stable in absolute numbers but are higher than the statewide percentages. A significant decrease in the absolute numbers of drug/alcohol cases has occurred, probably because most alcohol cases are now handled as felonies. Finally, despite the vast increase in vehicles in Kotzebue, traffic offenses have not increased markedly.

Table 4. Distribution of Misdemeanor Cases Filed in Kotzebue, FY83 and FY94

Table 5 presents figures on the rates of felony crimes per 100,000 population for the Northwest Arctic Borough, the Second Judicial District and the state as a whole. (The rates were calculated by dividing the number of cases filed by the population of the court area and then multiplying by 100,000. The rates are much higher for the borough and the Second Judicial District than for the state as a whole, but should be looked at with caution because the absolute numbers are so small and changes from year to year can cause great fluctuations.)

Table 5. Felony Crime Rate by Cases Filed per 100,000 Population, FY94

Table 6 presents a similar comparison for misdemeanor offenses. Again, the rates are higher than the statewide rates but, as with the rates for felony crimes, caution should be used in interpreting them. It is also important to note that several categories have not been reported because either the rural rate was significantly less than the statewide average or it was zero. For example, the statewide vice rate was 23.53 per 100,000 population, while for the entire Second Judicial District it was zero. (For other discussions of rural crime reporting, see earlier Alaska Justice Forum articles: "The Nonenforcement Role of the VPSO," Winter 1992; "Patterns of Reported Crime in Alaska Villages," Summer 1991; and "Offenses Reported in the Bethel Region, 1983-1987," Winter 1991.)

Table 6. Misdemeanor Crime Rate by Cases Filed per 100,000 Population, FY94

The Court Process

Once a defendant has been charged with a crime, he or she is involved with the criminal justice system, with the right to an attorney and a right to bail. In the past, before the presence of prosecutors and public defenders was established, defendants usually entered a plea with a village magistrate and received a maximum thirty-day sentence. This pattern reflected several factors. A level of community trust resided with the village magistrate as the main representative of the law. In addition, the community tolerated a certain level of deviant behavior because the offender was one of their own members and would return to the village. (There is a qualitative, if not quantitative, difference in sentencing when one knows a defendant. In most urban areas offenders being sentenced are anonymous.) Now, however, based on personal observation, the author suggests that community tolerance of deviant behavior is lower.

With the increased possibility of severe penalties, the availability of resources and defense attorneys, and the knowledge of due process requirements, defendants have become more likely to request the help of an attorney at arraignment rather than enter a plea. Hence, procedures have become more formalized.

Defendants have learned that with the appointment of a lawyer several things happen: they do not necessarily go to jail; they may be released on bail; there are delays in the process; they may be offered a deal; charges may be reduced; or the case may be dismissed. Moreover, as a judge, the author has perceived that now, with an attorney, it is more likely for a case to go to trial.

Another change in the process which can be noted involves bail. Usually one condition for bail is abstention from alcohol, with the defendant subject to immediate, warrantless arrest for violation of this condition. Defendants who violate the condition while on release under their own recognizance are required to post a cash bail subject to forfeiture upon future violation. In the past, the court used to accept families or third party custodians in lieu of cash bail, but with the weakening of generational and community ties, as discussed earlier, requiring cash bail has become more necessary to ensure awareness of the seriousness of the situation.


This article documents the changing nature of village life and its impact on crime. It discusses several social patterns which have changed over the past fifteen to twenty years and identifies changes in the allocation of criminal justice resources which have paralleled the social changes. It is hoped this discussion suggests avenues for future research.

Richard Erlich is a Superior Court Judge at Kotzebue Superior Court, Second Judicial District.