Begich, Murkowski Bill Tackles Domestic Violence in Rural Alaska

Measure Allows Tribal Courts to Work with State, Use Local Solutions

U.S. Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski today introduced the Safe Families and Villages Act of 2013 to give Alaska tribes more power to combat drug and alcohol abuse in their communities and to address the rates of domestic violence and child abuse and neglect.

“I introduced the Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act because the status quo just isn’t working,” said Sen. Begich.  “Tribal leaders throughout Alaska desperately need more resources and local control to manage domestic violence, substance abuse and suicide. We must make sure that Alaskans have the tools they need to feel safe in their communities – especially women and children,” said Sen. Begich.

“We must turn the tide of the rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse in our State,” said Sen. Murkowski. “It is critical we all work together in partnership to change a difficult reality that we in our State must address.  I have concerns about the repeal of the Alaska exemption within VAWA, however I remain committed to ensuring safety in our rural communities.”

Sens. Begich and Murkowski have worked together over the past several months on the bill they introduced today. Grim statistics support their desire for change:

  • More than 95 percent of all crimes in rural Alaska can be attributed to alcohol;
  • The alcohol-related suicide rate through Alaska’s villages is six times the national average; and
  • Alaska Native women suffer the highest rates of rape in the country, and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium says 1 of every 2 Alaska Native women experience physical or sexual violence.

The bill encourages tribes and the State of Alaska to sign intergovernmental agreements relating to the enforcement and adjudication of state laws in Alaska Native villages and authorizes the U.S. Department of Justice to make grants to tribes for carrying out the agreements. 

Under the bill there is no limit on the number of tribes that can participate in the program, but they must be able to demonstrate they have sufficient local capacity.  The intergovernmental agreements will address issues such as the employment of local law enforcement officers, tribal officers to be deputized by the state, and transferring enforcement of misdemeanor drug and alcohol offenses from the state to tribes.

The bill also repeals a provision inserted into the Violence Against Women Act that prohibited Alaska tribes – other than the Metlakatla Indian Community – from issuing and enforcing domestic violence protective orders against non-member Alaska Natives and non-Natives. The repeal will allow tribes, the State of Alaska and stakeholders to further examine the issuance of domestic violence protective orders in rural Alaska.

Tribal leaders welcomed the new legislation and believe it will bring positive results.

Melanie Bahnke, President of Kawerak said, “Kawerak, Inc. is the tribal consortium in the Bering Strait Region of Alaska, where there are 20 federally recognized tribes.  Kawerak supports legislation that will provide Alaskan tribes with mechanisms and resources to address violence.  Violence knows no boundaries or jurisdiction, it is not an Indian reservation vs. non-reservation issue. While violence also knows  no nationality, race, age, or creed, the statistics indicate that both American Indian and Alaska Natives experience domestic violence and sexual abuse and assault at rates much higher than the rest of the American population.  Legislation is needed that addresses this disparity, regardless of geography.  Kawerak, Inc. supports legislation that affords Alaska Native tribes the same opportunity to provide protect their women and children.” 

President of the Tanana Chiefs Conference Jerry Isaac said, “This bill promotes collaboration between the federal, state and tribal governments to allow for tribal enforcement of state laws. This is an important step forward in our efforts to curb the disproportionately high crime rates in our villages due to alcohol abuse.  Alaska suffers from the highest rates of domestic violence and recidivism in the nation and TCC believes these tribal-state agreements will reduce crime and repeated crimes by allowing local control of enforcement.  Our tribes are also very pleased with the repeal of Section 910 of VAWA.  TCC appreciates the creativity by the senators and dedication to the safety of Alaska’s villages.  With the rest of the nation taking party sides, with this bill Alaska’s senators have proven to work for the people rather than their parties.”  

Additionally, the bill works to enhance coordination and communication among federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement.