Murkowski Introduces Legislation to Address Alaska’s Rural Public Safety Crisis

In her continued effort to address the public safety crisis in rural Alaska, U.S Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced the Alaska Tribal Public Safety Empowerment Act, legislation to empower tribes in Alaska to exercise the special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction on a pilot basis. Among domestic violence victims in Alaska, Native women are over-represented by 250 percent, yet one in three communities in rural Alaska have no local law enforcement.

Specifically, the bill expands the jurisdiction provided in the Violence Against Women Act of 2013 (VAWA) to apply to Alaska Native villages on a pilot basis. The previous law provided that tribes have the power to prosecute certain non-Natives who violate qualifying protection orders or commit domestic or dating violence against Indian victims in Indian country. Unlike VAWA 2013, the Alaska Tribal Public Safety Empowerment Act empowers Alaska Natives to obtain protection under the Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction. Senator Murkowski’s bill recognizes the specific jurisdictional complexities that tribes in Alaska face. The 2013 special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction was limited to crimes that occur in the Indian country of a tribe, which left Alaska Native women unable to obtain protection from incidents of domestic violence. In addition to the VAWA 2013 covered crimes, the Alaska Tribal Public Safety Empowerment Act also includes sexual violence, sex trafficking, stalking, and assault of law enforcement or corrections officers. This legislation builds upon the Alaska pilot championed by Congressman Don Young in HR 1585 that the House passed in April of this year.

Click here the bill text.

“Far too many communities in Alaska know what it feels like to lack any means to seek help or justice for a crime of domestic violence or sexual assault because their village lacks advocacy services and law enforcement. This bill aims to change that and empowers villages to develop local solutions to problems,” said Senator Murkowski. “When it comes to domestic violence, Alaska Native women are over-represented by 250 percent—that means our sisters, mothers, aunts, cousins, and loved ones are being violated at rates that are unacceptable anywhere, in any state. Alaska’s tribes need to be able to exercise the special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction to address our staggering statistics. Alaska tribes, with support from the federal government, can be effective partners with the State to address Alaska’s rural public safety crisis.”

“On behalf of the Alaska Federation of Natives we thank Senator Murkowski for her leadership and listening to the concerns from rural Alaska,” said Julie Kitka, President of the Alaska Federation of Natives. “We look forward to working on this critical legislation to make a difference in the safety in our communities and build a stronger public safety system, with sustainable funding. A multi-faceted approach to US Attorney Barr’s Rural Public Safety Emergency is critical.”

“This bill is a necessary step towards adequate tribal authority to address the public safety crisis plaguing our communities,” said TCC Chief Victor Joseph. “If enacted, the law will provide for the crucial local control that is currently absent from the justice system. Baasee’ Senator Murkowski.” 

“The Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) thanks Senator Murkowski and her staff for listening to Alaska’s Tribes and taking action to protect our tribal communities. Recognizing Alaska Tribes’ criminal jurisdiction will make a substantial impact on the public safety crisis we face in rural Alaska. AVCP is in full support of the Alaska Tribal Public Safety Empowerment Act, and urges Congress to join Senator Murkowski in her support of Alaska’s tribal communities.” said Vivian Korthuis, AVCP CEO.

“The Alaska Tribal Public Safety Empowerment Act is a step in the right direction in recognizing the inherent authority of Indian Tribes to keep their communities safe by reaffirming tribal civil and criminal jurisdiction within Alaska Native villages. In the past, perpetrators have known about the jurisdictional vacuum in our villages; far too often nothing happens when a non-Indian commits certain crimes against our women and citizens because of the complicated jurisdictional scheme and Supreme Court precedent,” said Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard (Chalyee Éesh) Peterson. “We thank Senator Murkowski for her ongoing commitment to the safety of our communities and desire to protect our women and victims of other crimes.” 

“Tribes in Alaska have been watching the lower 48 tribes exercise ‘Special Domestic Violence Jurisdiction,’ which was part of VAWA 2013,  and the positive ripple effect of holding perpetrators accountable as part of a community safety plan. Given the Indian Country problems, the Alaska Tribal Public Safety Empowerment Act will provide the recognition and hopefully resources needed to the selected pilot project tribes to begin reassuming the local control over local issues and holding those who commit the specified crimes in our communities, responsible,” said Michelle Demmert, Law and Policy Consultant for the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center.

“Empowering tribal governments must be the cornerstone of any serious effort to address public safety in tribal communities,” said Kevin Allis, NCAI CEO. “This legislation recognizes the central role that tribal governments play in keeping their communities safe. We look forward to working with Alaska Native tribal governments to ensure they have the resources and authority they need to address the unique public safety challenges in Alaska.” 

The Indian Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution enables Congress to acknowledge inherent powers of the tribes as well as to delegate federal powers to the tribes. Thus, gaps in the jurisdiction of Alaska tribes can be resolved by Congress. The Alaska Tribal Public Safety Empowerment Act also aims to address those gaps by acknowledging inherent powers of certain Indian tribes that are not dependent upon the existence of Indian Country. Tribal criminal jurisdiction would explicitly be concurrent with state criminal jurisdiction. This legislation would specifically not create Indian country in Alaska and would not impact Alaska’s status as a P.L. 280 state.

Background on Murkowski’s Efforts:

  • Through her role on the Appropriations Committee, Senator Murkowski has worked to provide funding to prioritize public safety and justice. In the Interior-Environment Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2020, Senator Murkowski secured funding for an Indian Health Service domestic violence prevention initiative as well as support for tribal governments, meeting specific VAWA tribal court needs, delivery of social services and justice programs, and for developing tribal court systems.
  • New this year, the Interior Appropriations bill provides funding to address the crisis of missing, trafficked, and murdered indigenous women by providing support for cold case investigations, equipment, training, and background checks.
  • In the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2020, Senator Murkowski secured funding and language directing the Department of Justice to improve coordination-- including training and technical assistance, data sharing, and other resources—with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to better address violent crime in Indian country.

Related Issues: Alaska Natives & Rural Alaska