Alaska Native groups and leaders double down on criminal justice reform

While 66 percent of the felons released by the state end up back in jail or prison within three years, that number is 73 percent for Alaska Natives, according to corrections department data. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Two years ago, Greg Razo took a trip to the state prison in Nome.

Razo, who is Yup’ik, was shocked by what he saw: dozens and dozens of young Alaska Native men, doing hard time. The library computers looked broken; there was a school, but no teacher, he said.

“It was a waste of humanity,” said Razo, a former prosecutor and defense attorney who’s now an executive at Cook Inlet Region Inc., the Anchorage-based Alaska Native regional corporation. “People that are just in there watching TV, killing time, in some cases for years: How can we expect them, once they finally come out of prison — because almost everybody finally comes out of prison — to be useful members of society when they have never had an opportunity to do that?”

Razo, in a recent interview, said he kept lessons from that trip in mind as he helped lead last year’s push for Senate Bill 91, the now-controversial overhaul to the state’s criminal justice system.

Razo chairs the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, the panel that recommended the comprehensive changes to bail, sentencing, and parole and probation that lawmakers approved last year.

Gregory Razo, CIRI vice president for government contracting, is chair of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission. (Marc Lester/Alaska Dispatch News)

He is one of many Alaska Native leaders and groups that have pushed for the overhaul — and that are now defending it during the current special legislative session against a backlash from some Alaskans who say it’s fueling a rise in crime.

Overrepresentation in prisons

Razo and groups such as the Alaska Federation of Natives cite the fact that the state imprisons Alaska Natives and American Indians at a disproportionate rate: They make up 15 percent of the state’s residents, but represent 35 percent of the people in state custody.

On July 1, at Nome’s Anvil Mountain Correctional Center, where Razo visited, 122 of the 125 prisoners were Alaska Native, according to Department of Corrections data. On that date in 2014, the prison’s population was 120 Alaska Natives, and no one else.

Meanwhile, there are no Alaska Native judges on the state’s district, superior or supreme courts.

SB 91, which was pushed through the Legislature by conservative lawmakers, aimed to cut Alaska’s criminal justice costs by using alternatives to the prison beds that cost more than $150 a day. It also boosted spending on rehabilitation and drug and alcohol treatment programs, which can help fight the addictions that sometimes fuel crime.

The legislation also was designed to improve the results of Alaska’s justice system — especially the recidivism level, or the rate at which people released from prison end up returning.

Independent assessments have documented the failures of the state’s criminal justice system in the way it works with Alaska Natives, and Native villages and tribes. A federal Indian law and order commission said in 2013 that problems with tribal communities’ safety are severe across the United States, “but they are systematically the worst in Alaska.”

One decade-old study cited by the federal commission found that Alaska Natives represented 47 percent of the victims in domestic assaults reported to state troopers.

Driving down recidivism rates

And while 66 percent of the felons released by the state end up back in jail or prison within three years, that number is 73 percent for Alaska Natives, according to corrections department data.

The changes in SB 91, backed by research from the nonpartisan, nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts, were written in an effort to drive down those recidivism rates.

Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham. (Nathaniel Herz/Alaska Dispatch News)

“The reform aspect of SB 91, to me, is critical to the Alaska Native community, and our efforts at reducing the proportion of Alaska Natives — particularly young males — that become hardened criminals in the system,” said House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, who’s part Aleut.

“Bringing back fairness in the justice system”

Alaska Native groups and leaders threw their weight behind SB 91, the original overhaul. The Alaska Federation of Natives, at its 2015 convention, passed a resolution supporting criminal justice reform. And its president, Julie Kitka, wrote in a subsequent opinion piece that the legislation would “directly benefit Alaska Native families, individuals and communities.”

“We are not condoning criminal activity,” Kitka said in a phone interview. “That is not what we are about. But what we’re trying to do is get a sense of fairness in the justice system.”

Strong support for SB 91

The Fairbanks-based Tanana Chiefs Conference and Juneau-based Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska also testified in support of SB 91.

And Razo, the chairman of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission that helped draft the legislation, was key to building political support for it, said SB 91’s sponsor, North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill.

“He is an excellent spokesman. He knows the law, he knows the problems, he knows the people, he knows the solutions — and he’s very good at articulating them. Much better than I am,” Coghill said. “Without Greg Razo, it probably wouldn’t have gone.”

When lawmakers introduced legislation in February to reverse elements of SB 91, such as by toughening sentences, AFN lobbied against it, saying that it was too early to assess the effects of the original overhaul.

“Course correction” needed

The organization subsequently changed its position on the revisions — contained in Senate Bill 54 — and it’s now pushing lawmakers to pass that legislation as quickly as possible during the current special session in Juneau. Two AFN executives delivered that message this week to the House Judiciary Committee in Juneau.

Kitka said her organization understands the need for some “course corrections” to the legislation. But it doesn’t want SB 91 repealed, and it wants to move on to new steps that could keep improving public safety, she added.

Many of the efforts to reverse pieces of the criminal justice overhaul, during the special session, have come from white legislators who represent Anchorage and the Mat-Su. But another notable critic is Anchorage Republican Rep. Charisse Millett, who’s part Inupiaq.

Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage. (Marc Lester/Alaska Dispatch News)
A reform for everyone

In an interview, Millett said she doesn’t see any racial overtones in the criticism of the overhaul, which she described as taking a “broad sweep at criminal justice reform absent of race.”

Millett, who represents Anchorage’s lower Hillside, said she looks at SB 91 through both an urban and Native lens, trying to strike a balance between them.

She said lawmakers should have spent more money on prosecutors, rehabilitation, alcohol and drug treatment programs before reducing sentences — though she also acknowledged that she was previously one of the leaders in a Republican majority caucus that approved budget cuts to law enforcement.

Millett said she’s still willing to consider sentencing reductions, but only once lawmakers make those other investments.

“You can’t argue the fact that there’s a disproportionate amount of Natives in jail, and I recognize that,” Millett said. But, she added: “We put the cart before the horse.”

Related stories from around the North:

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Finland: Finland proposes a committee to address injustices toward Sámi people, Yle News

Greenland:  Tales of the unexpected: Inuit shepherds in Greenland, Blog by Mia Bennett

Iceland:  Norwegians and Icelanders let Alaskans in on the secrets to economic prosperity, Alaska Public Radio Network

Norway: Establishment of Álgu Fund marks new beginning in Arctic Council, indigenous peoples say, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: More protected lands on Nenets tundra in Arctic Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Treatment of Sami people among Swedish shortcomings : Amnesty International report, Radio Sweden

United States: State Attorney General says all 229 Alaska tribes are sovereign, Alaska Public Media

Nathaniel Herz, Alaska Public Media

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