Report from the Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission: A Review

Report from the Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission: A Review

Antonia Moras

Moras, Antonia. (Spring 2006). "Report From the Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission." Alaska Justice Forum 23(1): 2-4. The Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission is the latest government-appointed commission to study the Alaska justice system. This article describes the nine general recommendations contained in the Initial Report and Recommendations of the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission, which was released in April 2006, and compares its recommendations with those of five other major commissions which have examined the spectrum of Alaska justice system issues since the early 1990s. Included is a brief bibliography of reports from all six commissions discussed.

The Initial Report and Recommendations of the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission, which was released in late April, is the product of the latest government-appointed commission to study the Alaska justice system.

Since the early 1990s, at least five other major commissions have examined the spectrum of Alaska justice system issues. The Sentencing Commission, the Alaska Natives Commission, the Alaska Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Fairness and Access, the Alaska Commission on Rural Governance and Empowerment and the Alaska Criminal Justice Assessment Commission all released reports containing recommendations related to rural justice concerns. This report reiterates many recommendations previously made by the earlier commissions but it also presents some fresh proposals concerning rural justice issues. The commission has also asked for Congress to extend the appointments of the commissioners or designate a successor body to continue its work.

The federally-appointed members of this commission present diverse backgrounds: Not all have been working regularly within the justice system; some work primarily with Native organizations; several have extensive experience in rural health issues. Most, but not all, have significant professional or personal ties to rural, Native Alaska. With the exception of the Alaska Natives Commission, none of the other bodies mentioned displayed this degree of specifically rural Native experience.

In addition to presenting its recommendations, the report contains a review of the work of the commission—its charge, formation, procedures and findings. Commissioners held public hearings in eleven communities and took both oral and written testimony. The body of the report incorporates snippets of testimony from the hearings, with complete transcripts available at the official commission website ( As presented in the report, the overall findings of the commission do not vary radically from those of previous bodies, although the testimony from individuals provides some immediacy to the restatement of many of the problems.

Four work groups considered the specific problems in the commission’s target areas: law enforcement, the judicial system, alcohol sale and importation, domestic violence and child abuse. The members of the groups, who were selected for their experience in the topic areas, were asked to work on possible approaches to various problems. In spring 2005 the groups presented lists of options, which, after consideration by the commission members, became the basis of the recommendations in this report. In general, the report does not address the specifics of funding, since neither the groups nor the commission as a whole looked at cost issues in any depth; nor does it present specific implementation plans.

The particular recommendations are grouped under nine general themes: Engage in More Partnering and Collaboration; Enlarge the Use of Community-based Solutions; Make Systemic Changes to Improve Rural Law Enforcement; Broaden the Use of Prevention Approaches; Broaden the Use of Therapeutic Approaches; Increase Employment of Rural Residents in Law Enforcement and Judicial Services; Build Additional Capacity; Increase Access to Judicial Services; and Expand the Use of New Technologies. This method of grouping is somewhat awkward, since specific recommendations regarding some topics are widely scattered, making them difficult to correlate. An appendix presenting particular ideas according to their origin in the workgroups helps somewhat.

The first of the nine general recommendations—“Engage in More Partnering and Collaboration”—echoes recommendations made by all five of the previous bodies mentioned above. It also underlines the controversy that many believe is impeding the establishment of justice services in the bush:

There is no doubt the reduction in state-tribal conflict over jurisdictional issues and increased cooperation, coordination, and collaboration between State and tribal courts and agencies, would greatly improve life in rural Alaska and better serve all Alaskans…. Because there is insufficient coordination between state and tribal governments at all levels, the Commission recommends (a) strengthening State policy regarding tribal civil decision-making; (b) developing voluntary Memoranda of Understanding between tribes and the State relating to coordination and integration of child protection and domestic violence protective services; (c) changes to federal laws to require more coordination; (d) broadening the cross-recognition of judgments, final orders, laws and public acts of tribal, State, and federal governments (such cross-recognition already exists for Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)), and (e) fully implementing the Millennium Agreement.

To look at one of these in more depth—both in itself and as an example of the commission’s process: The commission’s judicial system workgroup, which included individuals from an array of agencies and interests and from both sides of the tribal-state jurisdictional controversy, devoted considerable effort to fashioning a model state-tribal agreement that could improve the handling of children’s cases under the Indian Child Welfare Act. The federal act and existing state statutes already provide a basis for such agreements—permitting the workgroup more or less to sidestep the thornier aspects of the jurisdictional controversy and make progress in a cleared area. The workgroup did not have time to complete the design of the model agreement, but made substantial progress. This work, if it can be completed, will put into place something that strengthens the ability of communities to protect their children, despite the jurisdictional controversy.

The second of the general recommendations—“Make Systemic Changes to Improve Rural Law Enforcement”—addresses one of the main issues behind the formation of the commission: the difficulties of establishing adequate policing and law enforcement services in the state’s isolated, mostly-Native, often-poor villages. This commission focused on policing more directly than the earlier ones did.

The law enforcement workgroup produced a list of consensus points rather than specific options. Like those in the judicial system workgroup, members of this group had to bridge political divides in fashioning the list. The consensus points include the statement that funding should be secured to ensure that “all officers engaged in law enforcement activity in rural villages …have a basic minimal level of training and certification.” If the commission is extended, one of its goals will be to develop a statewide, uniform, tiered system of certification and training for police and public safety officers.

Another of the consensus points is that the federal government must “take a much more active role in ensuring adequate law enforcement in Alaska’s Native villages.” Related to this would seem to be the more specific recommendation that the federal government expand its postal inspection function in rural Alaska and cross-designate inspection authority to other drug and alcohol investigators in target locales.

Other suggestions regarding policing are found scattered throughout the report—having emerged from other workgroups.

Inseparable from consideration of policing and public safety is the issue of alcohol. The specific Congressional charge for the commission was to “address the needs to regulate alcoholic beverages including the prohibition of the sale, importation, use or possession of alcoholic beverages and to provide restorative justice for persons who violate such laws including treatment….” In response, the commission has proposed a number of possibilities for expanding interdiction, enforcement and prosecution efforts. Some of these are similar to ideas proposed by the Alaska Natives Commission and the Commission on Rural Governance and Empowerment.

In addition to the proposal regarding postal inspection, the commission has also recommended several changes in state statutes. One change would clarify the definition of the “manufacture” of alcoholic beverages; another remove inconsistencies in existing laws that specify the quantities of alcohol which constitute violations under specific statutes. Another change would expand the forfeiture and seizure provisions applied to violations of alcohol laws, permitting forfeiture of firearms under certain circumstances. Another would ban written order sales to dry or damp villages and establish alcohol distribution sites, such as that in Barrow.

On the question of recommendations concerning alcohol law jurisdiction, the commission members did not reach agreement. A workgroup recommendation that tribes be granted jurisdiction to enact and enforce certain alcohol and substance abuse laws—something also recommended in the reports of the Natives Commission and the Commission on Rural Governance and Empowerment—was in the body of an earlier draft of this report, but the commission did not, in the end, adopt it. It was agreed to include the recommendation, with the suggested statutory changes, in an appendix.

The treatment and prevention recommendations on alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse are less specific than some of the ideas related to law enforcement. This report, like all previous ones, urges the expansion of prevention programs and the development of more local, family-oriented, and culturally-based treatment programs, but fresh specifics are lacking. These recommendations, which at base are a call for funding, appear under the general groupings “Enlarge the Use of Community-Based Solutions,” “Broadening the Use of Prevention Approaches” and “Broadening the Use of Therapeutic Approaches.”

Among the discussion of treatment programs is a call for re-entry programs for offenders returning to their villages. In general, however, this body focused less on issues of adult corrections and probation and parole than did previous commissions, despite the high number of Alaska Natives incarcerated and the problems faced by offenders upon release. The commission urges the state to find some way to keep Native inmates from being sent to the private contract facility in Arizona. It also recommends increased VPSO involvement in probation and parole supervision of offenders returning to villages. (Permitting VPSOs to exercise some probation authority has been tried on a limited basis for several years through a program administered by the Department of Corrections.) Expanded use of electronic monitoring is suggested.

The commission has also suggested that increased internet access be provided for police and public safety personnel, possibly through utilizing the excess bandwidth of the Federal Health Care Access Network.

To a degree greater than previous reports, this one puts emphasis on rural infrastructure and transportation needs as they relate to the functioning of the justice system. As the testimony before the commission and in the workgroups revealed, housing for personnel, jail facilities, offices and equipment are either inadequate or entirely lacking in many small communities.

In the area of judicial and legal services the report essentially reiterates many of the recommendations made nine years ago by the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Fairness and Access. It calls for more training for judges in the areas of domestic violence, sexual abuse and child abuse. The report notes how little access to civil legal assistance exists in rural Alaska. It provides detailed figures on the decline in funding Alaska Legal Services and calls for increased funding for civil legal aid from federal, state, local and private sources.

The commission recommends expanded use of tribal courts—calling for funding and training, including funding for tribes within municipal boundaries.

Running through the entire report is repeated mention of the necessity for working on the local, village level with tribes—despite the current tangle of jurisdictional issues:

Tribal governments are the only governments in many villages. Many villages have tribal courts that handle juvenile offenses and child protection cases that often entail alcohol problems the tribal courts must deal with. The best solutions to community alcohol problems involve the community.

The commission received a broad charge—essentially to look at the entire spectrum of justice system functions in rural Alaska with the intertwined social problems and to make recommendations for change. It has made recommendations in all areas—some in more specific terms than others. Many of the proposals echo previous ideas; some advance program and statute-directed changes. With certain ideas the path toward implementation is fairly clear—and some of the initial work already completed. With others it is less so. Possibly the greatest strength of the document is that it shows the results of discussion and collaboration that involved representatives with often conflicting points of view.

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Several of the recommendations in this report—those related to the definition of manufacture, the forfeiture of firearms used during alcohol law violations, and the quantities of alcohol constituting a violation under various laws—were enacted by the legislature this session (SB210) and will go into effect in July.

In response to an Alaska Justice Forum inquiry in late April, Senator Stevens’ office stated that the senator had agreed to ask for an extension for the commission.

Antonia Moras is the editor of the Alaska Justice Forum.