Alaska Tribal Courts Receive Infusion Of Federal Funds

The state of Alaska now has federal funds to advance a program to use tribal courts to handle misdemeanor crimes. Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth has been working with tribal courts to create a simple process for transferring cases, known as a civil diversion agreement, to enable tribal courts to handle low level crimes in a more culturally sensitive manner. But there has been a problem: Lindermuth says that the state and tribes need more resources to get the program rolling. 

“Getting this federal grant to actually have some seed monies, I think, will help get this launched,” she said.

Lindemuth says that what the state is doing now in rural Alaska is not working, and working with tribal courts would allow community-based remedies to be applied locally. 

The way the program works is that the defendants, who otherwise would be charged with certain fourth degrees assaults, reckless endangerment, class B misdemeanors, crimes involving substance abuse, and certain alcohol and drug-related offenses, would be given the option to go before either a tribal court or the state court system. The tribal court could also decline to take a case and send it back to the state. Under these agreements, the state keeps safeguards in place before referring any domestic violence offenses to the tribal court.

Attorney General Lindemuth compares the program to other alternative courts operating outside of tribal communities.

“You may be familiar with therapeutic court or veterans court,” said Lindemuth. “There could be diversion from the usual criminal process to therapeutic court; this just involves tribes who have tribal courts to set up those kinds of programs to handle low level misdemeanors in their communities.”

The Attorney General says that the three-year grant provides $900,000 to do everything from conducting training to explain how the program will work, to providing funds to tribes to implement the civil diversion agreements. She added that villages without such courts might be able to us some of the funds to set them up. 

“This is really aimed at those tribes that do have tribal courts. Now, presumably some of this money, if they don’t have a tribal court, could be used to help set up a tribal court in order for them to undertake these efforts. And so, you know, working with the state, there should be a lot of flexibility in how we use these grants to get these programs stood up statewide,” said Lindemuth.

So far, two tribes have agreements with the state: the Anvik village tribe and the Nulato Tribal Council. Lindemuth says that several tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are talking about setting up such a program in their communities. As far as expanding tribal jurisdiction to include more severe crimes, the Attorney General says that could happen. 

“If a tribal court gets up and running and is doing really well with these,” she said, “that’s something we could consider, is expanding the types of offenses that qualify.”

But right now, Alaska is just beginning this effort and many tribes don’t have these courts. Instead, offenders are routinely sent to larger communities to attend court hearings, face judgments, and do time or rehab.