New judicial order gives northern Alaska tribes more say in criminal sentencing

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger addresses the Alaska Federation of Natives convention on Oct. 18, 2019 (Photo by Wesley Early, KOTZ – Kotzebue)

Northern Alaska Native tribes will have more input in criminal sentencing in their communities, after a judicial order announced at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention Friday in Fairbanks.

Alaska’s second judicial district covers 22 villages across the North Slope, Northwest Arctic Borough and areas around Nome. Kotzebue-based Superior Court Judge Paul Roetman’s order means tribes in the district will get more information on criminal cases in their communities and more input on sentencing recommendations.

At AFN Friday, Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger said, in the past, tribes have informally reached out to the state courts for sentencing. But Bolger says this new order provides a formal avenue, and he says he’s hopeful that other judicial districts will see the order as an example.

“A lot of times when there’s a crime committed in a local village, local people have great interest in the matter,” Bolger said. “We’re hoping that we can get greater local input and also greater local resources to address these problems.”

Judges would consider the tribal recommendations when handing down sentences.

Bolger says the new order gives tribes the opportunity to give the court cultural and regional input.

“If the victim and the defendant and the prosecution agree, then after a defendant has pleaded guilty or been found guilty at trial, the case would be sent to the requesting tribal organization for a recommendation on the sentence,” Bolger said.

In his address to AFN, Bolger also acknowledged the state’s judicial commitment to addressing delays in rural justice. He says the state has a large backlog of unsolved cases.

“We’ve been able to try the cases that are ready for trial by using our regular criminal bench, by bringing in retired judges who work on a temporary basis and by assigning judges from other divisions,” Bolger said.

Bolger acknowledged that these solutions are not enough to address the backlog entirely and that the courts are not receiving adequate and timely funding to deal with the pileup of cases.

Bolger also asked the convention to join the state court in resisting political influence in the judicial process. He declined to comment on whether that was in reference to the governor.

Wesley Early covers municipal politics and Anchorage life for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at

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