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KNBA NEWS - Alaska's growing prison population the subject of Sen. Murkowski hearing

Joaqlin Estus
KNBA 90.3 FM

Witnesses endorse tribal courts as a solution 

By Joaqlin Estus, KNBA

Alaska has already outgrown the $250-million Goose Creek Correctional Center that opened in 2012. Instead of pouring more money into building and maintaining prisons, people testifying in a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs field hearing in Anchorage on Thursday said it’d be smarter to turn some of the money toward keeping people out of prison. 

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski chaired the field hearing on "Strengthening Alaska Native Families: Examining Recidivism, Reentry, and Tribal Courts in Alaska,” and heard a range of solutions from the five people invited to testify.  First, she shared some information from a report.

“In the Lower 48 back in 2009 for the first time in 38 years it said, 26 states successfully reduced their prison populations but Alaska was not one of those,” said Murkowski. “Alaska was not one that is seeing the rates going down. In marked contrast Alaska has the 11th fastest prison population growth in the entire country.

Murkowski shared another statistic she finds troubling.

“Alaska Natives make up 15 percent of our state's population, 15 to 17 percent but they constitute about 36 percent of all prisoners in custody,” said Murkowski.

Natasha Singh is General Counsel for the Interior Alaska regional nonprofit Tanana Chiefs Conference. She said Alaska’s law enforcement and judicial system isn’t working.

“The status quo in our villages is unacceptable in any civilized country. It's unacceptable in America, and in Alaska,” said Singh.

Credit Joaqlin Estus / KNBA 90.3 FM
KNBA 90.3 FM
From left to right, experts testifying at the hearing include Alaska Sen. John Coghill; Natasha Singh, Tanana Chiefs Conference; Greg Razo, Alaska Criminal Justice Commission; Jeff Jessee, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority; and Denise Morris, Alaska Native Justice Center.

Greg Razo, who serves on the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission and the boards of Alaska Legal Services and the Alaska Native Justice Center agrees, saying “We have seen where a centralized justice system is simply unable to meet the needs of the widespread populations and to understand cultures and the history and the spirit of the people that live in rural Alaska.”

Singh said tribal courts are required to protect constitutional and civil rights, work well, and need to be expanded.

“Today we ask you add to the tools Alaska tribal governments need to strengthen our families, and to address the root causes of substance abuse,” said Singh. “What is needed is federal legislation which recognizes the authority of our tribal governments to deal in the first instance with issues of local domestic violence, sexual assault, and substance abuse.”

Sen. Majority Leader John Coghill, of Fairbanks endorsed tribal courts.

“In the process of time, the Native groups and the tribal groups have begun what I call a pretty decent justice system that I would say is maturing,” said Coghill. “The state has had some struggles how to work with them legally technically,” he added.

Coghill has sponsored two legislative remedies. Senate Bill 117 would divert people facing  misdemeanor criminal charges to tribal courts.

“They can use restorative justice ways that the state just has a hard time getting to. And I think that's gonna at the front end keep people from coming into prison,” said Coghill. “While Senate bill 91 will work with ways to reentry, reenter them into society in a better way. But it's true that a disproportionate of people in our incarceration facilities are not only Native but they're behavioral health issues and those things just have to be addressed.”

Jeff Jessee, the head of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, said 60% of the prison population has mental and behavioral health issues. As for people relapsing into crime after they leave prison, Jessee said the solutions involve more than the departments of public safety and law.

“You know who are the agencies that really have a huge impact on keeping them out when they leave? It's Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, it's the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, it's the Department of Health and Social Services. It's our tribal partners,” said Jessee. “Because what we know is that to keep people productive in the community, they need housing, employment and support for recovery.”

The head of the Alaska Native Justice Center, Denise Morris, said the public also has a part to play.

“Another key component that we do at the Alaska Native Justice Center in partnership with a lot of people, we don't do this alone, is educating the public of the value of giving people a second chance,” said Morris.

Murkowski told the audience of about 30 people the public record for the hearing will remain open for a few weeks if anyone wishes to submit written testimony.

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