Alaska Natives Criminal Justice System

In 1993 the Alaska Native Commissioned Report revealed that 32 percent of the state’s incarcerated population is Alaska Native, even though Alaska Natives represent only 16 percent of the overall population. More recent reports have found that these number have not drastically changed (The Alaska State Offender Profile, 2015). In this paper I will briefly outline and address what some scholars, researchers, and reports have cited to explain why Alaska Natives are disproportionately represented in Alaska’s prison system, as well as show recommendations that could help mediate this overrepresentation and the ethical dilemma of implementing these recommendations.

The Alaska Native Commissioned Report (1993) states that traditional ethics of “truth telling” can account for many convictions of Alaska Native individuals. Several other reports have pointed out observations that Alaska Natives are more cooperative with law enforcement, and more willing to confess to crimes than other racial groups. Among those who have expressed this observation is Rachel King, a former public defender. King (1998) writes of her observations while working in rural villages. King’s (1998) observation is that her Alaska Native clients are more likely to confess to their crime and not exert their 5th Amendment rights when talking with law enforcing officers.

Another observation made by King (1998) was that the Alaska Bail system frequently failed Alaska Native individuals. The bail system in Alaska has in recent past been a cash bail system. This means those who cannot post bail will wait in jail until their trial. Rachel King (1998) identifies the bail system in Alaska as a contributing factor to the overrepresentation of Alaska Natives incarcerated. In her experiences she finds that her clients that can not post bail are more likely to accept a plea deal, or to plead guilty at arraignment. In most cases, her Alaska Native clients are less likely to be able to post bail than her non-Native clients. King (1998) also points out that those who live a subsistence lifestyle are more likely to plead guilty to “get it over with,” due to that fact that hunting, fishing, and preparing food for winter is so time consuming.

Several other scholars have pointed to the jury selection process as a possible contributing factor to the large number of Alaska Natives incarcerated. The jury selection process is due in part to Alaska’s unique geographical structure. There are only a couple of heavily populated larger cities, which predominantly consist of non-Natives. The rest of the state is populated by smaller villages or bush communities that are heavily populated with Alaska Natives. Because many villages do not have their own court systems, many village offenders are flown into the larger communities to be arraigned, tried, and sentenced (May, 2011). Offenders in these situations can oftentimes face a jury that is not made of their peers, but of individuals from the larger communities. Jeff May (2011) argues that although the state has taken several measures to ensure that rural Alaska Natives receive a fair jury trial, the state often falls short in ensuring this right. May (2011) writes “ To remote villagers in Bush Alaska who’s customs, culture, and way of life are vastly different than in larger cities within the state, the opportunity to be judged by those sharing similarities is of utmost importance.”

In order to help correct this epidemic of overrepresentation, the Alaska Native Commissioned Report (1993) made several recommendations and steps that can be taken to help aid this dire situation. First the report recommends that (1) Alaska Native tribes should be encouraged to establish dispute resolution bodies (including tribal courts) and procedures that are consistent with the predominant tradition and culture of the village, and the State of Alaska and the federal government should provide training and technical assistance to further the establishment and functioning of these bodies. (2) The State of Alaska should enter into formal agreements with each tribal council to determine which infractions or classes of infractions will be the domain of tribal courts and which will continue to be under the authority of state government.. (3) Native organizations, such as regional nonprofit corporations, the Native American Rights Fund, and similar institutions possessing financial and technical capabilities should, in addition to pressing for resolution of tribal claims to authority and jurisdiction, examine the existing governmental entities available to Native communities in order to identify ways to increase their effectiveness in addressing village problems and achieving village goals. (4) The State of Alaska should establish means by which probation and parole can be carried out in the home village of the offender, utilizing the cultural and social structure of the community to both monitor and support the individual in the spirit of rehabilitation and community healing. (5) Regional and, where practical, Village alternative corrections programs should be established by the State of Alaska for all but the most violent Native offenders; the programs, to be successful, must have adequate and culturally appropriate alcohol treatment components and be administered and/or overseen by local Native organizations (Alaska Native Commissioned Report, 1993)

The recommendations made to address this issue are often times seen as an ethical dilemma. Many people would not consider it fair to implement different criminal proceedings based on the offenders race or culture. However, if no changes are made, Alaska Natives will continue to be imprisoned at greater rates than other racial groups. Even though some of the recommendations involve creating alternative criminal sentencing for offenders, implementing these recommendations would ultimately be beneficial for the entire state.

This report is not intended to be an exhaustive explanation to the contributing factors of the disproportionate number of Alaska Natives in Alaska’s prison system. However, its intent is to briefly offer up some possible reasons that have historically contributed to this overrepresentation, as well as develop an understanding of the actions that can be taken to help correct this problem. Further research is needed on this subject in order to fully develop an understanding of the reasons why and the actions that can be taken to move forward.

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