A disproportionately high number of Alaska Natives are incarcerated in the state of Alaska. In 2014, nearly 32 percent of the prosecuted criminal offenders in Alaska were Alaska Natives; they only constitute less than 20 percent of the population. Recidivism rates are higher for that group as well. Now, the state is working on new ways to partner with tribes to help solve both problems.
For the first time in Alaska, there will be a joint tribal-state court. A Kenaitze tribal judge will sit side-by-side with a state judge and have equal say in decisions. It will be a wellness court that hears criminal cases involving substance abuse, and will start taking up to 20 participants in March. Currently, tribal courts only have jurisdiction over civil matters, like adoptions, divorces, domestic violence petitions, and child protection cases.
Sweet says the process helps get to and treat the root of the problem. Program developers are currently working on a handbook of procedures so the model can be repeated throughout the state.
Sweet says having the tribes involved in substance-related criminal charges will also help them when working on child protection cases. The majority of those involve substance abuse and sometimes criminal charges which aren’t known to the tribal courts. The joint court can help solve some of those disconnects.