Begich’s Safe Families Bill Passes Out of Indian Affairs Committee
Today’s Vote Huge Step Forward for Legislation to Improve Village Public Safety
Alaska Native villages would have more local control to manage misdemeanor crimes and address risk factors involving domestic violence and substance abuse under a bill introduced by U.S. Senator Mark Begich which passed the Senate Indian Affairs Committee today by a unanimous vote.
“As I’ve said before, the justice system is broken in too many of our rural and remote communities – and the obvious next step is giving local people local control to help solve problems,” said Begich. “The goal is to improve the quality of life in rural Alaska and reduce drug and alcohol abuse and the social problems that come with it. It’s been a long time coming, but today’s vote is an important step towards giving rural Alaska communities the authority they need to deal with crime and violence.”
The committee adopted and passed a modified version of the legislation, the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act of 2014, which included suggestions from the Department of Justice (DOJ), tribal attorneys, and the Alaska Federation of Natives, in order to enhance the scope of the bill. The bill encourages Alaska Native tribes and tribal organizations to enter into intergovernmental agreements with the State of Alaska to improve enforcement and adjudication of state laws related to drug and alcohol offenses. The amended bill also creates a path for Alaska tribes to apply for expanded civil jurisdiction with the DOJ. The expanded jurisdiction would enable tribes to implement tribal law within village boundaries to enforce civil sanctions involving child abuse and neglect, domestic violence and substance abuse.
Begich has long supported giving local communities more tools to provide local law enforcement and public safety and has been committed to addressing these issues since he first introduced a previous version of the bill in 2009. In a report issued late last year, the national Indian Law and Order Commission described a crisis in rural justice in Alaska and urged Congress, the federal government and the State to strengthen tribal sovereignty and self-governance.
“I was deeply disturbed by the findings of the Indian Law and Order Commission report,” said Begich. “The findings of this report, including the devastating statistics on domestic violence and sexual assault, reinforce the dire need for change. Congress must take action on these difficult public safety issues and respond with a sense of urgency.”
The self-governance project would allow traditional tribal practices such as circle sentencing and community service to hold the offender accountable to their community for their actions. The intent of the bill is not for Tribes to incarcerate individuals, unless agreed to through an agreement with the State – except in emergency situations when people are in immediate danger. In such cases, temporary protective measures may be taken if harm is threatened by tribal or non-tribal members in the community.
The Alaska Safe Families and Villages Self-Governance Tribal Law Project also would make DOJ grants available to tribes that meet detailed criteria, including an established tribal court process, and open up eligibility for Alaska tribes to receive Bureau of Indian Affairs public safety funds.
Begich’s bill also repeals a provision inserted into the Violence Against Women Act that exclusively prohibits Alaska tribes – other than the Metlakatla Indian Community – from issuing and enforcing domestic violence protective orders against non-member Alaska Natives and non-Natives.
With today’s action the bill is now cleared for consideration on the Senate floor.