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Mr. BEGICH. Mr. President, today I introduce legislation to address issues of great concern to me and to all who care about public safety in Alaska Native villages.
Last year President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order bill into law. That legislation passed because Congress recognized the great need to provide more support for the criminal justice system and communities in Indian Country. While this law has some important provisions that will benefit Alaska Native communities, I believe the remoteness and other unique conditions in many Native villages in my State compel us to do more. That is why I am introducing the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act of 2011.
My bill will establish a demonstration project allowing Alaska Native tribes to set up tribal courts, establish tribal ordinances, and impose sanctions on those people who violate the ordinances. It would enhance current tribal authority, while maintaining the State's primary role and responsibility in criminal matters. Additionally, those communities selected to be part of the demonstration project would be eligible for an Alaska Village Peace Officer grant, enabling a Peace Officer to serve participating communities in a holistic manner.
Due to the vastness of Alaska, too many of our small remote villages lack any law enforcement. Too often, minor cases involving alcohol and domestic abuse go unreported because the nearest State Trooper resides in a distant hub community, located a long and expensive airplane ride away. Frequently, harsh weather prevents the Troopers from flying into a community even when the most heinous acts have occurred. Approximately 71 villages have a sole, unarmed Village Patrol Safety Officer, VPSO, who must be on duty 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Compounding the challenges of a small number of local law enforcement, these few hard-working VPSOs are often underpaid. While communities try to provide some housing and heating assistance, in places where fuel oil can cost as much as $10 a gallon, it can be difficult to retain qualified VPSOs and also sustain the funding for these public servants.
As one who believes whole-heartedly in community involvement, I strongly believe tribes in Alaska should benefit from true self-determination and have a role in their law enforcement needs. This local control not only provides security for communities, but also encourages local acceptance of the established or existing judicial system as a whole. With the changes in place that my bill would require, residents of Alaska Native villages will see a culturally-relevant system replacing a crisis-management system that is set in place after a tragedy has occurred.
Unfortunately, Alaska Native communities have grown all too familiar with alarming suicide rates. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, over a two-month period during the summer of 2010, there were at least nine self-inflicted deaths in several of the region's villages. Nick Tucker, an elder in the village of Emmonak, wrote a letter to the State of Alaska's rural affairs advisor to try to bring attention to the issue. Part of Mr. Tucker's letter begged for the Governor to call the Legislature into session to address the issue. He also said it is no longer acceptable for village residents to wait for State Troopers because ``in the villages, they take forever.''
Part of the disturbing cycle of suicide in rural Alaska can be attributed to the presence of drugs and alcohol. Despite the knowledge that an individual can speak with an elder and learn who is bootlegging alcohol or selling drugs, predators do not fear law enforcement intervention because there is no consistent police or State Trooper presence.
Further, despite many Alaska Native communities' wealth of cultural heritage and tradition, many suffer from economic, cultural, and educational depression. Villages often experience high unemployment rates, above 20 percent, due to their remoteness and lack of economic opportunity. Most economic development in Alaska is centered in either the metropolitan areas, or in very remote areas where local residents are able to develop local resources. This economic depression, coupled with the 10,000-year practice of subsistence, means Alaska Natives' physical and spiritual survival remains highly dependent on the land. They subsist on game, berries, and fish. However, as hunting and fishing stocks dwindle, many of these Alaskans are feeling disconnected from their heritage and, at times, have turned to drugs and alcohol. Though educational attainment in the last 40 years has increased dramatically, the dropout rate in Alaska still hovers at 40 percent. Too many of our young men and women have lost hope and are losing a sense of community.
We must give our Nation's communities the tools necessary to protect themselves. Too often, we pour resources into urban areas, but decry lack of resources when we try to work toward innovative solutions for our most remote communities. We should no longer allow the answer from anyone to be ``we don't have the resources.'' Alaska Native villages are vibrant, strong communities and we should do everything in our power to answer their calls for help. I am hoping the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act of 2011 will be just one piece of the puzzle.
I encourage my colleagues to join me on this legislation, and ask for the full Senate to consider and pass it--providing much-needed help and resources to some of our country's neediest places.
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