Emmonak Juveniles and the Elders’ Group

Emmonak Juveniles and the Elders' Group

Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. (Summer 2001). "Emmonak Juveniles and the Elders' Group." Alaska Justice Forum 18(2): 1, 3-8. Since 1999, the Emmonak Elders' Group Project has handled certain non-felony juvenile cases in the village of Emmonak, a predominately Yup'ik community on the Yukon Delta of western Alaska. The project permits youth to remain within the community while their offenses are adjudicated through the body of elders - thus avoiding formal justice system processing which usually entails removal from the village. Youths are held accountable within the context of the local community and its traditions. This article describes the results of an initial evaluation of the program in early 2001, after the court had been in operation for approximately a year and a half. The evaluation comprised a review of program files, direct observations of meetings, discussions with community residents and interviews with parents and juveniles. It primarily focused on project implementation: how the court was established, its procedures, and the working relationships among institutions and individual participants.

Since 1999, through an arrangement with the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice, the Emmonak Elders' Group Project has handled certain non-felony juvenile cases in the village. The project permits youths to remain within the community while their offenses are adjudicated through the body of elders – thus avoiding formal justice system processing which usually entails removal from the village. Youths are held accountable within the context of the local community and its traditions.

The Justice Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage conducted an initial evaluation of the program in early 2001, after the court had been in operation for approximately a year and a half. The evaluation comprised a review of program files, direct observations of meetings, discussions with community residents and interviews with parents and juveniles. It primarily focused on project implementation: the process involved in establishing the court, its procedures and the necessary working relationships among institutions and individual participants.

Program Background

Emmonak, which lies at the mouth of the Yukon, close to the Bering Sea, has a population of about 800, most Yup'ik Eskimo. The village economy depends heavily on commercial fishing supplemented by subsistence activities. The juvenile population is proportionately large, with over 200 children enrolled in the local school system.

Figure 1. Emmonak, Alaska and Vicinity

Concern about the problems and activities of this juvenile population led the Emmonak Tribal Council to design a program that would involve the elders in adjudicating juvenile misbehavior. A federal Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grant (JAIBG) channeled through the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) funded the program.

The Emmonak Elders' Group was officially established in 1997 in response to increasing social problems in the village. Although the elders had always been integral to the cultural and social fabric of Emmonak, they began to exert greater influence in community decisions and discussions after a formal, tribally recognized council was established. The goal of the Elders' Group has been to pass down traditional knowledge and wisdom to a new generation. They have formally addressed such community problems as domestic violence by educating families and providing culturally based guidelines. Becoming involved with troubled youth was a logical step. The problems of youth became increasingly obvious to the community after several suicides occurred in the mid-1990s. During the same period delinquent behavior was increasing.

This project proposed two major goals of equal importance. The first was to reduce juvenile crime and recidivism. This was both a goal with individual youths and a safety and health goal for the community as a whole. It encompassed issues such as accountability, sentencing, and local solutions to problems of youth crime. The second, but no less important, goal was to increase the skills, knowledge and control of local Native entities in administering solutions to village issues. This included increasing collaboration between state and local/tribal entities as well as restoring cultural relevance to the way in which youth are educated and guided toward positive behavior. Of primary importance here was incorporating Yup'ik traditional values and beliefs into the systems that serve youth, including the schools and, in this case, the juvenile justice system.

Program Participants

The program funded with the JAIBG grant established a formal link between the Juvenile Justice office in Bethel and the Elders' Group through which non-felony cases could be referred to the elders at the discretion of the juvenile probation officer.

Grant funds were used initially to support one staff position for the program—the Elder-Youth Specialist—which would bear responsibility for nearly all of the administrative tasks. Foremost among these have been processing referrals from the state justice system and monitoring sentence completion. (Also, because outside the school system this position is the only one in Emmonak that deals specifically with youth, the Elder-Youth Specialist has become a source of information and assistance beyond the program. ) The Elder-Youth Specialist works as a facilitator, with the relationship between this position and the participating elders critical to the success of the program.

The village elders are the essence of the project in Emmonak. By requiring individuals to appear before the elders, the grant project has stretched the role of the Elders' Group. Before its inception, some youth and families received counseling from the elders, but they were usually self-referred. The project has raised new dynamics within the community. People who were less connected to Yup'ik traditions are now exposed to traditional ideas; they have been spoken to in Yup'ik; and they have interacted with a generation that they previously might have avoided.
One issue raised by the project was the extent of the elders' authority, particularly if that authority seemed to conflict with other established rules and regulations. On one occasion, for example, an elder decided to go into the school to check on a youth who had come before the Elders' Group, but the school district has regulations for non-family school visitors, which the elder did not follow.


Juveniles in Emmonak who violate the law are referred to the Juvenile Justice office in Bethel. Each case is assigned to a Juvenile Probation Officer who decides whether the charged youth should have the option of appearing before the Elders' Group in Emmonak or continue through formal processing within the state system. The officer considers such factors as: number of prior offenses, nature of the charge (only non-felony cases are heard by the Elders' Group), and age of the offender. Both the youth involved and the parents must agree to authorize the Elders' Group to administer the case. Once this authorization is received, copies of the original referral letter and the authorization letter are sent to all of the elders for review. The Elder-Youth Specialist then schedules an Elders' Group hearing for the case.

Referrals from the official juvenile justice process are termed state referrals to distinguish them from the increasing number of local referrals being made by family members, community members or school personnel without the involvement of the DJJ office. These local referrals also require the agreement of both parents and youth.

The Elders' Group hearing takes place in the community hall in the Tribal Offices Building. Elders sit at a conference table facing the youth and the parent or family member. Also present are the Elder-Youth Specialist and occasionally a translator. Some of the elders are primarily Yup'ik-speaking, with limited skill in English. At times the Elder-Youth Specialist may serve as translator.

In two cases, the arresting Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) or Village Police Officer (VPO) has also been present, but for the majority of cases the police, although invited, have not attended. Each meeting has an agenda that includes opportunities for all parties to speak, a break for elders to confer in private, and finally the sentencing of the youth. During the sentencing, all of the elders present have an opportunity to speak to the youth and to family members. Their presentation, which is the core of the hearing, may include stories of their youth, discussion of the values and guidance handed down from their own parents and grandparents, Yup'ik myths, and warnings directed toward the behavior in question. Emphasis is placed on the welfare of the community and the culture and the role the youth themselves will someday play as leaders in their community. The sessions, which last from two to four hours, can be emotional and powerful statements about both the historical and personal repercussions of destructive youth behaviors such as drinking. Finally, the elders prescribe a sentence—usually a period of community service—and the youth is given a chance to speak.

The referral process appears to work well. In its evaluation the Justice Center assessed the turnaround time between arrest and referral to the Elders' Group and between referral and Elders' Group proceeding. All state referrals were sent to the Elders' Group within six weeks of arrest, and hearings before the elders were scheduled two weeks to a month after receipt of the referral. The turnaround time was important to the community, because one of the problems with the state justice system often mentioned by community members was the length of time between the behavior and any repercussions. This community concern mirrored the intent of JAIBG legislation and reflected the belief that if too much time elapsed between the behavior and its consequence the sense of responsibility was diminished.

Follow-up and monitoring procedures for the project have been less clearly articulated than the actual hearings and sentencings. Failure to maintain careful records of hours of community service completed and/or restitution paid is a primary weakness of the program. At present the youth seem to view their community service as busywork, and there is little supervision of youth at their work assignments, unless the work takes place in an office or classroom. Since work assignments often involve walking around the village and picking up trash, this is rarely the case. One important reason for this lack of supervision is staffing: there is only one staff member. Another is the absence of a plan for service opportunities in Emmonak.

There is also a lack of monitoring of the youth's behavior in school and at home after sentencing. The original program proposal contained a very cursory description of what would happen after the Elders' Group Meeting. The referral process and Elders' Group hearings seem to be working as described in the proposal, but as the number of youth who flow into the program increases, more attention to follow-up and monitoring is necessary.

Collaborative Relationships with Key Entities

The Emmonak Elders' Project has required ongoing collaborative relationships with a number of agencies and groups as well as continuous efforts to form new relationships with other entities. Among those groups working with the project have been:

  • Juvenile Justice Office. The Bethel office of the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice has cooperated in both the development and implementation phases of this project. The probation officer who handles Emmonak youth has routinely referred misdemeanor cases to the Elders' Group for disposition. This relationship continues to be a strong one.
  • Tribal Council. The Tribal Council was the initiator of the program and received the JAIBG grant. Their belief in and support of the program have not diminished. The Council formally recognized the initial Elder-Youth Specialist with a community service award for his work on the project. Many council members have expressed their support for the concepts underlying the project: they recognize the contribution of the elders to maintaining Yup'ik traditions and passing these on to the youth.
  • Magistrate. In rural Alaska the magistrate handles minor (misdemeanor) juvenile cases under the authority of a District Court Judge. The relationship with the magistrate's office has been strong since the inception of the program. The magistrate is now directly referring youth offenders handled by her office to the Elder-Youth Specialist for assignment to community service. Although this has added to the workload of the single staff member, it has also increased the visibility and credibility of the project.
  • Rural CAP Youth Empowerment Project. The Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc., was originally established through federal legislation to "protect and improve" life for rural Alaskans. Their Youth Empowerment project in Emmonak has provided volunteer activities for youth and some community service opportunities for referred youth who appear before the elders.
  • School District. At the time of the evaluation there was not a strong connection between the school and the program. This is a general community issue, as there appears to be a strong social division between community and school personnel. Most school personnel are not permanent residents of the community; many are from outside Alaska. The school/program linkage was not developed at the outset of the project but in the second year several meetings were held with the principal; as a direct result of these meetings four school referrals to the Elders' Group were initiated. This is, at present, an under-utilized relationship but one that has potential for growth.

In addition to these ongoing relationships, efforts are underway to establish links with other groups.


The Bethel office of the Division of Juvenile Justice referred a total of seventeen youth to the Elders' Group from July 1999 through January 2001. Nearly two-thirds of these youth were under fourteen; five were younger than ten. Only two of the state-referred youth were female. Table 1 displays details on the state-referred youth.

The state-referred youth had committed a variety of offences, including burglary, criminal trespass, vandalism, theft, domestic violence, minor consuming, resisting arrest, and in one case threatening another youth with an unloaded firearm. All cases referred by the state juvenile justice system met the terms outlined in the original agreement. None of offenses were sex crimes.

Since January 1, 2001 only one case has been referred to the Elders' Group from the Bethel Juvenile Justice Office. The Bethel Probation Officer also stated that there had only been one Emmonak youth case referred to the Division of Juvenile Justice during the last six months of 2000.

Sixteen of the seventeen referred youth appeared before the Elders' Group for counseling and sentencing; one moved to Anchorage after referral but prior to his scheduled Elders' Group appearance date. Three of the sixteen appearing before the group were ultimately referred back to the Bethel office because of additional charges; two were referred on felony charges and one was waived to adult court.

In the first five cases the youths were sentenced to restitution of property if the crime involved theft or destruction; a verbal warning was given and an apology for other crimes was required. It had been the original intention of the elders to give those appearing for the first time a warning along with guidance regarding their behavior. After several parents and one crime victim (who happened to be the local magistrate at the time) requested that the youth all be assigned community service hours in addition to restitution for their first offense, the policy was changed. It was noted that although this was a first time for these youth to be referred to the Elders' Group, many had accumulated multiple prior violations of city ordinances. After the fifth case, all state-referred youth were given 10 to 100 hours of community service in addition to restitution and/or restoration of property.

Community service assignments tended to focus on cleanup tasks—e.g., picking up trash. A few youth worked at the school or maintained the community hall. There did not seem to be very many occurrences of the culture-specific types of community service that were emphasized in the proposal, e.g., chopping wood, drying fish, etc. This seemed to be due to an absence of necessary supervision and training.

Of the seventeen state-referred youth, eleven satisfactorily completed the disposition requirements, one partially completed them, three did not complete them, and for two the outcomes were not known. Five had had no additional violations of the law after their referrals, and for five it was not determined if additional violations had occurred. Seven of the youth had at least one further violation; some had several, and two committed felonies.

As of December 30, 1999, nine youth had been locally referred to the Elders' Group. (See Table 2.) These referrals came from the school or families. Local referrals ranged in age from 10 to 14 years. Two of the nine were female. This local referral component of the Elder Group's work is becoming substantial. While local referrals were not part of the original proposal, they appear to take as much time as state referrals do. They also consume as much of the Elder-Youth Specialist's time as do state referrals. The local referrals were processed much like the state-referred youth. The meetings were identical in form as those for the state-referred youth, although for the most part these youth received guidance and warnings and were not required to perform formal community service. Because they reflect an effort on the part of the community to intervene early in a youth's problem behavior, local referrals can be seen as a positive expansion of the program.

Table 2. Locally-Referred Youth (May 1999 through January 2001)

All of the locally referred youth had committed one or more violations of such city ordinances as minor consuming alcohol, violation of curfew, or underage smoking—all status offenses. As a group, the locally referred youth had higher numbers of city ordinance violations in the past two years than the state-referred group, both before and after the Elders' Group intervention. Locally referred youth had a mean of 4.1 violations per person between January 1, 1999 and February 22, 2001, compared with .88 violations per person for the state-referred group. Parents who requested help from the Elders' Group cited these violations as reasons for the referral, along with school issues, not doing chores, and parental disrespect.

To date, youth have not been directly referred to the Elders' Group by the local magistrate or by local police, but during the second year of the project the Elder-Youth Specialist began supervising the community service component of juvenile dispositions handed down by the local magistrate. None of these youth was referred to the Elders' Group. In some months, the Elder-Youth Specialist has received as many as 10 of these community service cases. Although this has added to his workload, it is indicative of a strengthening relationship between the magistrate and the project.


Although there has been no substantial accumulation of quantitative data for evaluation, the two major goals of the project appear to be being met: juvenile crime seems to have decreased and village control of the administration of justice has risen. Through its use of the traditional strengths of the elders to formally address the delinquent behavior of youth, the Emmonak Elders' Group Project has helped to demonstrate the efficacy of a locally-based approach to handling juvenile misbehavior.

The Elders' Group Project has, by several measures, been a success. Although a direct cause-and-effect relationship cannot be established, there has been a decrease in the number of Emmonak referrals to the Division of Juvenile Justice. There were none during the last six months of the period covered by the evaluation —September 2000 to February 2001. The relationship with the DJJ Bethel Office has functioned well. The project is also resulting in financial savings by avoiding more costly formal processing.

Intensive on-site observation and discussions with parents, community members, and youth suggest that the program is having a positive effect on the community. More members of the community have had opportunities for contact with the elders, and many express pride in the elders and in the program.

One important measure of success is the interest near-by villages have shown in the program. One has suggested sending youth to Emmonak for appearances before the elders, and a more serious suggestion has been to establish similar elder-youth programs in these villages. Expanding the program to local referrals in Emmonak can also be seen as a measure of success. The move toward dealing with local referrals whose offenses are usually status offenses suggests a high level of trust in the influence of the elders as well as a belief that earlier intervention in the behavior will have greater impact.

Another outcome of the project has been a renewed interest in understanding youth needs.
The program does exhibit some weaknesses. The sole staff position is now over-extended in responsibilities. In addition, poor record-keeping has been a major weakness in the program. If other villages hope to emulate this program, records information is important. It is also useful for evaluation. The number of post-disposition contacts might be a factor in the success of some youth, but this cannot be determined without a log.

A related flaw in the program has been the lack of a formal system for providing case information to referral agencies. Communication with the Bethel Juvenile Justice Office is good, but feedback should occur with all local referral agencies (school, magistrate, police). This is particularly important for a project that deals with overlapping jurisdictions.

The research discussed in the preceding article was conducted by Corey Knox, Research Associate, and N.E. Schafer, Professor, Justice Center.