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With inequity in Indigenous incarceration, advocates say more Indigenous law representation needed

According to incarceration data from the 2010 Census, Native American people accounted for more than one-third of adults incarcerated in Alaska. 

Legal experts say that unless the justice system includes more Indigenous people as lawyers and judges -- inequities in incarceration will continue.

Natasha Singh is general counsel for the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a Tribal consortium of 42 Interior Alaska Native villages. 

Natasha Singh, Photo provided by Natasha Singh

She says the justice system needs to see significant change.

“We represent a huge part of defendants, right, so then you'd want your lawyers, your public defenders, your prosecutors and your judges and the criminal sector to represent those people who are defendants.”

In2020, the Law School Admission Council reported that less than one-third of one percent (0.3 percent) of students admitted to U.S. colleges of law were Native American -- yet Native American people account for one and a half percent (1.6 percent) of the total U.S. population. 

According to the U.S. News & World Report, only 12 percent of the nation’s nearly 200 accredited law schools offer a certificate, program, or legal clinic that specializes in Native American issues. 

Alex Cleghorn is the legal and policy director at the Alaska Native Justice Center. He agrees on the importance of diversity, and showing youth that law is a career they can -- and should pursue.

Alex Cleghorn, Photo provided by Alex Cleghorn

“I don't think that we have been as deliberate throughout the state in talking about justice and talking about public safety and talking about having the same coordinated Native statewide response to those issues.” 

When he was in school, Cleghorn said a law career didn’t seem feasible.

“Perhaps disproportionately, Native people experience a lot of interaction with laws and policies that may not be reflective of our values or may not be responsive to our needs. So having Indigenous people trained in the law I think can help navigate those sometimes complicated systems.”

Tanana Chiefs general counsel Singh also says that it’s crucial to educate children about their Indigenous heritage, as well as other children state-wide about Indigenous people.

She also says that educating the current lawyers and judges on Tribal laws could be a massive step toward a more balanced justice system.

“It would probably be restorative and healing because our people who are committing crimes-- are not actually bad people. What's happening is they're suffering from historical trauma, they are substance abusers and they are not given the tools to get out of the cycle.” 

Cleghorn says encouraging youth and law students to broaden their understanding of justice is an important step toward a better Alaska.

“To be having those statewide conversations about public safety and justice and what an Indigenous or Native or Tribal response to that looks like, and talking about how to engage our young people and seeing themselves as part of the solution.” 

The Alaska Bar Association plans to launch a diversity initiative committee within the next year or so. The goal of the committee is to identify systemic issues that impact lawyers of color; issues with attracting lawyers of color to the bar association; and to better support diverse members of the bar association.

Ben Hofmeister is the president of the Board of Governors for the Alaska Bar, and has been a board member since 2018.

Hofmeister says Alaska is far behind -- compared with some states that already have a diversity committee.

“I think we need leadership from diverse numbers so that we, can get a diversity of opinions that are going to help us fix our state in the long run.”

The diversity initiative was proposed in January 2021, and passed this May. Now, the Alaska Bar will work on putting the committee together.

For young people, the Alaska Native Justice Center holds a two-day event called Color of Justice, which highlights different career paths in the justice field for students. 

The location of the program rotates each year between Southcentral Alaska and Sitka. The next program is scheduled for 2022 in Southcentral Alaska.

DISCLOSURE: The Alaska Native Justice Center and KNBA are both tenants of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. 

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story, a photo caption misidentified Alex Cleghorn. This story has been updated.

Hannah Bissett is a Dena'ina woman who is currently enrolled at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Hannah is pursuing an International Studies degree and is president of two student organizations on campus.