New joint tribal-state court established

A disproportionately high number of Alaska Natives are incarcerated in the state of Alaska. In 2014, nearly 32 percent of the prosecuted criminal offenders in Alaska were Alaska Natives; they only constitute less than 20 percent of the population. Recidivism rates are higher for that group as well. Now, the state is working on new ways to partner with tribes to help solve both problems.

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For the first time in Alaska, there will be a joint tribal-state court. A Kenaitze tribal judge will sit side-by-side with a state judge and have equal say in decisions. It will be a wellness court that hears criminal cases involving substance abuse, and will start taking up to 20 participants in March. Currently, tribal courts only have jurisdiction over civil matters, like adoptions, divorces, domestic violence petitions, and child protection cases.

Kenaitze Chief Judge Kimberly Sweet, who will be one of the two judges who preside over the court, says it will be run like most tribal courts. Everyone will sit together around a large conference table to talk about the problems.

“Parties are allowed to seek legal counsel,” she explains. “They can bring their legal counsel to court with them. Legal counsel are allowed to advise them, but we don’t speak to their legal counsel, we hear directly from the parties themselves.”

Sweet says the process helps get to and treat the root of the problem. Program developers are currently working on a handbook of procedures so the model can be repeated throughout the state.

“It’s not just based on personalities of people who have big hearts that are driving this,” she says. “(We’re writing the manual) so that it actually becomes institutionalized, so it can be picked up and taken by anybody.”

Sweet says having the tribes involved in substance-related criminal charges will also help them when working on child protection cases. The majority of those involve substance abuse and sometimes criminal charges which aren’t known to the tribal courts. The joint court can help solve some of those disconnects.

“So being able to collaborate and cooperate and work in the best interest of these families will do nothing but create a healthier community.”

Similar joint courts already exist in Minnesota and California.

A 2014 change in court rules also allows the state’s court system to use collaborative methods for sentencing adults, like circle sentencing. The Kenaitze tribe and others are already using the method with juvenile offenders. Sweet explains that circle sentencing brings the offender, community members, family members, and sometimes the victim into the same room to discuss the issue and the solution.

“Nobody is an authority in the circle. The circle collaborates and works together as a little mini-community to come up with a plan to put that youth or the adult on the right path with as much input from the youth and the adult as possible.”

For adult cases, the state judge would make the final sentencing decision.

The state is also working on a plan to improve the outcomes for Alaska Natives who end up incarcerated. The Department of Corrections is convening an Alaska Native Focus Group for reducing recidivism.

Alaska’s recidivism rate is 63 percent for everyone leaving the prison system. For Alaska Natives, it’s 74 percent. DOC Commissioner Ron Taylor discussed the formation of the group during AFN.

“We’re concerned about the higher rates of recidivism among that group and looking for ways to improve those outcomes. How do we do a better job of providing programming and resources? Of linking them to services once they get released? And how do we do a better job of ensuring they go back to their communities if they chose to do so.”

The group will be chaired by Lt. Gov. Bryon Mallott and meet for the first time next week in Anchorage. It’s unclear why recidivism rates are higher for Alaska Natives, Taylor said. It could be linked to cultural and language barriers with the department’s reentry and treatment programming.

Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her at Read more about Anne here.

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