$10 Million Won’t Fix Alaska’s Horrific Domestic Violence Problem
The influx of federal funds will do little more than highlight the state’s chronic political dysfunction
Alaska is finally getting the resources it desperately needs, which makes it all the more disappointing that the state is unlikely to put them to good use.
Attorney General William Barr announced late last month that the federal government will provide Alaska with more than $10 million to help police combat domestic violence. The funds will provide resources for isolated and rural regions where police forces are too often ill-equipped and under-trained. It’s long overdue for the Department of Justice to pay attention to Alaska, a state that suffers from high crime rates and political dysfunction. But unfortunately, it is unlikely that this money will actually do anything to fix the state’s sickeningly high domestic violence problems.
I worked as a legislative aide in the Alaska State House on and off between 2008–2015, and I served as the statewide communications director for one of the largest social service nonprofits in Alaska. I have a soft spot for the state — though I moved away two years ago, I will likely always identify as Alaskan. This is why I take no pleasure in saying that the DOJ’s generosity will probably do much less than we may hope.
Alaska is in a political and financial mess. Legislators finally passed a state budget in June, 57 days after the legislative session was supposed to end. The state also needs to address the uniquely Alaskan, and election-quakingly important, issue of the state PFD, an annual cash dividend available to every Alaskan resident — but legislators can’t even agree where in the state to convene.
Public safety programs are already severely underfunded, but in light of significant statewide budget cuts in recent weeks, the funds are drying up even more. Gov. Mike Dunleavy just vetoed $3 million in funding for the Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) Program. This is an essential program for policing the Bush, where individual villages are often separated by hundreds of miles of tundra or mountains. While it’s still unclear whether the federal funds were designed to supplement this program, I worry that if it isn’t allocated to VPSOs, who are from the communities they police, then it will not be a significant contribution.
A $10 million investment for rural policing may also have far less impact than one might expect.
Alaska currently has the highest crime rate in the nation. Rural Alaska has long held a disproportionate influence on state crime rates, but these days, crime is up all over the state. A serious crime wave spread across large pockets of the state over the last five years and Anchorage is breaking records in homicides, assault, theft, and basically all types of crimes.
Still, a $10 million investment for rural policing may also have far less impact than one might expect. The state’s domestic violence problem is much more complicated than a simple lack of police and funding. Alaska also has a culture problem. In reality it is a small state, not physically of course, but as a community. We know our politicians personally, sit next to them at the movies, and see them at the grocer. This often means that those in power have a personal stake whenever a crime is committed.
While Alaska is geographically huge, three quarters of its communities are inaccessible by road. You have to fly, take a boat, or use a snowmachine to get to most of the state. In a village of a few hundred people, separated from the next community by roadless tundra, mountains, glaciers, or water, many crimes are committed by people who know their victims personally — they may even be members of the same family. Perhaps more importantly, who do you think the cops, judges, and lawyers are? Very often they’re all related.
I once went to the sheriff’s office at Utqiagvik, one of the bigger and more remote Bush communities, to ask how a local man with a long criminal record managed to avoid jail time for a sexual assault conviction. The deputy didn’t seem surprised. “You noticed he’s related to a lot of people in town,” he asked. “Why do you think he’s out pending sentence?”
For isolated villages with no jails, and possibly even no police, tribal justice has traditionally relied on banishment. The community has the legal right to expel criminals and troublemakers, which has included for assaults; violent, sexual, and otherwise. But banishing a rapist doesn’t deal with the rapist, just his former community. Instead he becomes the problem of women in some other town. Even villagers expelled for non-violent crimes like drunkenness or smuggling bring their problems with them to the next community, and with depressing frequency, get cycled through villages and towns until they eventually end up homeless in one of the bigger cities.
Part of the Justice Department’s plan is to give $4.5 million to Alaska Native Corporations, which provide employment for thousands around the state and do plenty of good in their communities through funding educational foundations, promoting Alaska Native arts and culture, and managing medical and other social services programs. They also, however, have been the subjects of federal investigations for everything from contract kickbacks to fraud to bribery. They’ve diverted federal funding from needy Native families before. I have occasionally been accused of cynicism, but it’s comical to think that giving Native Corporations money will fix the problem. In my mind, they already have plenty of money. The funds would be better off elsewhere.
Still, it’s not like Alaskans have been standing still on the issue. There are many organizations in the state, like Standing Together Against Rape (STAR) and Facebook groups for victims like Alaska Natives Against Domestic Violence, focused on raising awareness, collecting data, offering services to victims, and advocating for legislative change. The Native Corporations do also spend millions in support of these groups and their efforts. Bills to end rape shield loopholes, protect victims, and empower communities are proposed and (usually) passed pretty much every single year in the State Legislature. Alaska really is trying to Choose Respect, which comes from an 11-year-old program aimed at encouraging men to get involved in ending domestic violence and sexual assault.
I am extremely happy that the federal government has finally acknowledged Alaska’s horrifying level of domestic violence and is making strides toward resolving this chronic problem. What Alaskan women and children are going through, especially in the rural and Native communities, is disgraceful. Any attention paid to it by those with more resources is to be applauded with gratitude.
We should not expect, however, that this gift will make a meaningful contribution to fixing the problem. The Last Frontier is politically dysfunctional, financially broken, and hemorrhaging citizens at an unprecedented rate. Alaska’s problems are deep, and fixing the epidemic of domestic violence will require a concerted, coordinated, cultural change. It took Alaska many years to get to this stage, and money won’t immediately fix it.
Thomas Brown was a communications and political consultant in Alaska. He is managing editor of The Swamp and has been published in The Bipartisan Press, Alaska Native News, GEN, Human Events, Times of Israel, Dialogue & Discourse. Argue with him on Twitter: @reallythistoo.