Alaska Native villages must have local control to manage domestic violence, substance abuse and suicide -- among other issues -- was the message championed today by U.S. Senator Mark Begich as he chaired a hearing on his Safe Families and Villages Act of 2013 in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Begich has long supported giving local communities more tools to deal with local law enforcement and public safety problems and introduced the first version of the bill in 2009. Begich introduced a revised version last fall. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is a co-sponsor.
"Today's hearing was one more step on the path to moving our bill forward and giving back local control to our tribes and communities," said Begich. "Alaska has over 100 remote villages without any law enforcement. I'm appalled by the lack of respect and justice for the victims. The justice system is broken in these rural communities and we must put an end to this public safety crisis. Alaskans deserve better."
The panel of witnesses testifying on the bill included Natasha Singh, a tribal judge from Stevens Village, Alaska.
"I thank Ms. Singh for her blunt and honest testimony today," Begich said. "National reports have shown the horrifying conditions in our rural villages. I believe the solution is to give authority and responsibility for public safety back to our rural communities, which is exactly what my bill does."
Begich pointed to some very disturbing Alaska statistics during the hearing, indicating the need for change:
* More than 95 percent of all crimes in rural Alaska can be attributed to alcohol;
* The alcohol-related suicide rate through Alaska's villages is six times the national average; and
* Alaska Native women suffer the highest rates of rape in the country, and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium says 1 of every 2 Alaska Native women experiences physical or sexual violence.
Begich's bill encourages the State of Alaska to enter into intergovernmental agreements with Alaska tribes relating to the enforcement of certain State laws by those tribes. The goal is to improve the quality of life in rural Alaska and reduce alcohol and drug abuse.
Under the bill there is no limit on the number of tribes that can participate in the program, but they must be able to demonstrate they have sufficient local capacity. The intergovernmental agreements will address issues such as the employment of local law enforcement officers, tribal officers to be deputized by the State, and transferring enforcement of misdemeanor drug and alcohol offenses from the State to tribes.
The bill also repeals a provision inserted into the Violence Against Women Act that prohibited Alaska tribes -- other than the Metlakatla Indian Community -- from issuing and enforcing domestic violence protective orders against non-member Alaska Natives and non-Natives. The repeal will allow tribes, the State of Alaska and stakeholders to further examine the issuance of domestic violence protective orders in rural Alaska.
Begich recently wrote a letter to Governor Parnell urging him to change his stance on tribal jurisdiction issues and reconsider his support for the provision in VAWA.