U.S. Attorney General William Barr has declared a National Emergency in Alaska, and it doesn’t have anything to do with natural disasters.  

As reported by MSN, the U.S. Department of Justice has approved $10.5 million dollars in grants to deal with a public safety crisis in America’s northern most state.

Anyone that has visited the state of Alaska, or watched a television program about the state known as The Last Frontier, can understand that it presents unique experiences and circumstances for its residents. From the climate, to terrain, to the wildlife, and the sheer size of the state itself.  The law enforcement officers and criminal justice system as a whole are not immune to these unique set of circumstances. 

According to reference.com:

“The state of Alaska covers approximately 570,640.95 square miles of land, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Alaska is the largest of the 50 states, and more than twice the size of the second biggest state, which is Texas. With a 2013 estimated population of 735,142, Alaska is the least densely-populated state, averaging just 1.2 persons per square mile.” 

As one can imagine, this can lead to difficulties in the area of public safety and protection.

The relief money that has been slated for Alaska will fund a number of projects for the state’s criminal justice system.  MSN explained funds will be focused on:

“Funding three new federal prosecutors who will focus on rural Alaska criminal cases. Upgrading public safety infrastructure, such as holding cells, for Alaska villages and tribes. [And] Developing ‘medium and long-term planning to address violent crime issues in rural Alaska’ in tandem with Alaska Native leaders.”

Alaska has a very long and rich history within their indigenous (or Native Alaskan) communities. Many of these individuals still live within small remote communities that only include members of the native tribe. Many of these communities do not have any form of law enforcement, or jails. 

In communities where Tribal Elders for generations would mete out punishments for crimes committed within their communities, times have started to shift, and the need for greater law and order is becoming more prevalent.   

MSN reports:

“The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica found that one in three Alaska communities has no local law enforcement. Violent crime survivors must sometimes wait hours or days for authorities to arrive.”   

Many communities have single individuals that have been deemed the “public safety officer”, and there is a large need for those and others to become trained as certified Law Enforcement Officers.  However, the Native communities feel that they would be best served by continuing to keep a system in place that includes training, as well as the advice and decision of their elders.

Due to the unique environments and communities of Alaska we see many statistics above the national averages.  MSN details the factors stating:

“Alaska’s sexual assault rate is nearly three times the national average and climbing.”

That’s not all.  

“Among domestic violence victims in Alaska, Native women are over-represented by 250%.” 

According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, “Alaska has one of the highest rates of suicide per capita in the country. The rate of suicide in the United States was 12.57 suicides per 100,000 people in 2013.” 

Alaska also battles with a high rate of alcoholism and alcohol related crimes, especially in the Native communities.  Alcohol.org reports that:

“As much as 12 percent of the deaths suffered by Native Americans and Alaska Natives are related to alcohol, which is more than three times the rate of the general American population.”

Many of these statistics and circumstances have led to the need for federal assistance for public safety in Alaska, as well as the need for reform in within Alaskan law enforcement. MSN explained:

“Dozens of convicted criminals have been hired as cops in Alaska communities. Often, they are the only applicants. In Stebbins [alone], every cop has a criminal record, including the chief.”  

That shows the challenges that these communities face.

Alaska’s Republican Senator Dan Sullivan stated to MSN:

“Every community that wants law enforcement should get it. The key issue, where the feds can really help, is on the training side.  That is one of the big areas where we are completely lacking.”

With this understanding the U.S Department of Justice, along with Alaska’s congressional delegation acknowledge it is time to assist the state in developing and restructuring its criminal justice system.

The state definitely has some issues.  Let’s not forget about what happened in June, when the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that a state law requiring the registry of all sex offenders is unconstitutional.

Why?  They say it violates offenders’ rights to due process.

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The ruling was issued after a 3-2 decision.  The court said an offender has to be given another chance.

A chance for what?

To prove he or she is rehabilitated and no longer remains a threat to the public, they say.

“Our decision requiring an individualized risk-assessment hearing is based on the judicial power,” the court wrote in its opinion. 

The onus is on the offender.

If they can “can show at a hearing that he does not pose a risk requiring registration, then there is no compelling reason requiring him to register, and the fact that ASORA does not provide for such a hearing means that the statute is unnecessarily broad.”

In a seemingly hypocritical move, however, the court upheld a lower court ruling mandating the registration of sex offenders upon moving to Alaska if they were required to register in another state as well.

Currently, the Alaska Sex Offender Registry Act requires sex offenders to register with law enforcement 30 days before being released from jail or prison … or within a day of a conviction where the sentence doesn’t include jail time.

That ruling comes from a 2016 case involving an unnamed man convicted in 2000 of sexual battery in Virginia.

In the end, he was sentenced to five years in prison, but the time was suspended.  He also got five years’ probation and was required to register as a sex offender.

He later moved to Alaska. That’s where he registered as a sex offender annually for several years, and then decided to stop. He sued the state and claimed the sex offender registry law violated his rights to due process.

Alaska isn’t the only state dealing with the topic.  Earlier this month, a U.S. district court judge ruled Michigan’s sex offender registry was also unconstitutional.

Charles Engram is a registered sex offender, who was charged with criminal sexual conduct in 2011.

He was released in December 2018 after he served prison time.  Now he can’t go near schools, and his information is public and he is tracked by a tether.

“They can have you put back in prison just like that,” Engram said. “That’s not the same for a person who’s killed somebody. They can have five or six bodies on their hands and they get released, they get parole. There’s no tether put on their leg, none of that,” Engram said.

According to Engram, he was originally to be placed on the registry for 15 years, but says later it was changed to life.

“It should be designed for those people who are very sick sex offenders who need treatment, who need to be regulated. Not all people who committed a sex offense crime are like that,” Engram said.

On the flip side is Eric Layton, a sexual abuse survivor.

“You’re accused of it. You’re convicted of it. Come on now. We as a community have to prioritize things. And I don’t believe the priority should be an offender’s innocence or assistance from the state – what he can or cannot get. It’s your fault. You’re an offender. Suck it up,” said Layton.

Layton talks about being sexually abused as a child.

“Being molested in foster care, that pretty much took a toll on me that I didn’t really realize until adulthood. It’s a tough thing to hear these types of headlines,” Layton said.

Layton argues the sex offender registry not only prevents future assaults, but it gives survivors peace… and says revising it feels like a slap in the face.

“You should first consider protecting the survivors and preventing this from creating other victims. And then allow offenders what you deem a lesser action or charge, allow them to fight their own battles,” Layton said.

The judge gave the state of Michigan 90 days to change the registry.


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