Bill Encourages Tribes to Work With State on Jurisdiction

The sponsor of the Safe Families and Villages Bill, U.S. Senator Mark Begich, said the bill encourages tribes to work with the state of Alaska to develop agreements on tribal court jurisdiction. But he said it also gives tribes a way to take on added responsibilities through an agreement with the federal government.

Begich, a Democrat, says that takes away the state’s veto authority over tribal jurisdiction that was in an earlier version of the bill.

“What I tried to is to make sure that the law was stronger in the sense of the relationship it would have with the Department of Justice vs. the state of Alaska because the state of Alaska, as you know doesn’t recognize tribes,” he said. “They wanted total control over making the decision. And we felt that was not appropriate.”

Native American Rights Fund staff attorney Natalie Landreth said another important part of the bill is it amends the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to delete section 910, which had been inserted by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican.

“It had this ridiculous way that it was formed where it said we’re going to add a savings clause, meaning you can do everything that you were doing before, but then it said ‘except Alaska.’ and that ‘except Alaska’ muddied the waters so heavily that someone like me who litigates could not have explained to a court in a coherent way ‘your honor, there’s a savings clause and an exemption and here’s what it means.’ you cannot have both,” Landreth said.

Landreth said tribes need the added authority because the state provides inadequate law enforcement in dozens of villages.

“Previous to the VAWA reauthorization, in 2012, tribes have been exercising a lot of civil authority over domestic violence in their villages” Landreth said. “Because people often forget, they’re often the only entity there, the only government entity for hundreds if not thousands of miles.”

Attorney General Michael Geraghty said the goal of the Safe Families and Villages bill is laudable.

“I certainly agree with the goal which is to try to reduce crime and improve public safety in these communities,” Geraghty said. “And the state’s working on that in conjunction with tribes and has been for several months. So I agree with the goal but I disagree with the means by which this bill tries to accomplish that.”

Geraghty said the state has been working with Tanana Chiefs Conference for the past couple of months to create an agreement that would accomplish the same goal, with one caveat.

“It does empower tribes to deal with offenses, certain offenses, enumerated offenses within their communities if the offender has agreed to be diverted to tribal court,” Geraghty said.

Murkowski had supported an earlier version of the bill but didn’t sign on as co-sponsor of this version. The Safe Families and Villages Act now awaits scheduling on the Senate floor.

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Joaqlin Estus is a reporter at KNBA in Anchorage.

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