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Alaska Legal Services Corporation is bringing free legal training to rural Alaska residents

The Nome court.
Matthew F. Smith
The Nome court.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta suffers from a shortage of public defenders. Without enough lawyers, many cases fall through the cracks. Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC) is a nonprofit that works to bridge that gap and bring more justice for communities across the state.

This fall, staff from ALSC and the U.S. Department of Justice came to Bethel as they geared up to launch a new resource center to help get more rural Alaska residents trained to carry out tasks traditionally handled by lawyers. They’ll be known as community justice workers.

ALSC Executive Director Nikole Nelson said, “These community justice workers will be boots on the ground who know what's happening within those villages or within that circumstance. Can help us connect and make sure that we're drawing down the resources that were meant to come.”

Once trained, these workers will be able to handle civil procedures like wills, debt collection, unemployment benefits, domestic violence protection, and Indian Child Welfare Act cases. The training courses are free, developed with help from Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Alaska Pacific University. The goal is to be as inclusive as possible.

Nelson said that the program’s impact could be seen during the recent Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) crisis when the state had a backlog and stopped processing applications for food stamps.

“So our community justice workers have been helpful in helping get people the benefits that they need.”

There are already a number of community justice workers in Bethel who work with Assocation of Village Council Presidents (AVCP), and the program is available to people in villages across the Y-K Delta too. But they’re formally launching the resources center to bring in more people and resources.

State Sen. Lyman Hoffman, and state Rep. Bryce Edgmon contributed funds for the new center, and they got a National Science Foundation grant.

“We spent a year working on looking at the community justice worker program and seeing if it was a scalable model for addressing a big issue, both in Alaska and beyond,” said Nelson. “And then we, 20 folks, were selected from that 50 person team to receive a million dollars to help stand up the program and also conduct research about scalability. So we got that.”

The program has gotten attention nationally for it’s unique methods. ALSC partners with community-level organizations, medical professionals, and translators for working with non-native English speakers.

Rachael Rossi, the Director of the U.S. Department of Justice's Office for Access to Justice, traveled from Washington D.C. to visit Bethel. She said that she wanted to see the team's innovative approach to getting people access to justice.

“This is an area that I think, again, nationally, people can learn from what Alaska has been doing in this program,” said Rossi. “Because language access, cultural competence, it has to be core to every effort we take to try and meet justice needs of the communities. So our office is thinking about this.”

Rossi wanted to learn from the community justice worker program and see what the method looked like on the ground.

“So I think one of the things that's really sort of the core to all of this work is that all of our laws, all of our rights, are all of our promises. They're only as good as your ability to access them. And if you know you have this constitutional right, but you're not getting that promise, then we have to do something about it,” Rossi said.

There are a lot of unmet legal needs in the Y-K Delta. Some this program can’t deal with, like criminal cases. But the team is passionate about the justice it can bring to rural Alaska. Nelson said that by empowering residents to know the law, they’re bringing justice closer to those impacted and helping them redesign solutions that work for them.

Sunni is a reporter and radio lover. Her favorite part of the job is sitting down and having a good conversation.