Joint court planning progresses

Progress is being made on an experimental joint court coming to the Kenai Peninsula.

Announced in October, the court will be a partnership between the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and the Alaska Court System. Kim Sweet, the chief judge for the tribe, and Kenai Superior Court Judge Anna Moran will hear cases together in the new program targeted toward substance abusers and those facing lengthy felony sentences.

The program, slated to launch in March, has been a long time coming according to Moran and Sweet.

“We have wanted to have a therapeutic-style court in the Kenai area for several years,” Moran said, adding that funding fell through the last time a similar effort was made. “It’s a way work collaboratively together to solve a very serious problem in our community.”

After some guidance from groups that have created similar joint court systems, the state and tribe built the new program’s specific needs into the framework they were given. The system will work with community partners focused on healing, recovery and providing tools to addicts to succeed in the future, Sweet said.

Those deemed eligible for the court will have to agree to commit to the program, which spans a minimum of 18 months, Sweet said. Their cases will be heard by both judges at the same time. Though the court location will alternate between the tribal and state court, its format will remain therapeutic and intimate, Sweet said.

Therapeutic court differs from state court in that it focuses more on healing, Sweet said, in accordance with the tribe’s established values.

“Definitely the boarding school era and everything put a huge barrier up for families,” Sweet said. “It changed the way culture is viewed. I mean, it took away a lot of the cultural norms for families. … Children are there to support the elders and vice versa, and that was broken, and it wasn’t too long ago.”

Therapeutic court systems function to help uncover reasons behind how a person has evolved to the point at which the court is meeting them, while still holding that person accountable for their actions, Sweet said.

The tribe plans to hire its own probation officer with the addition of the program, she said.

The joint court will take referrals from the District Attorney’s office for people identified as a good fit for the program. Sweet said she and Moran are mainly looking for those facing felony charges for substance abuse, those also involved with Child in Need of Aid cases, and those facing lengthy jail time.

“We need to be community minded, we need to support each other in this movement against substance abuse,” Sweet said. “It’s affecting all ages, all races in our population right now in our community, and it’s gross … what it is doing to our community.”

One of the system’s largest challenges will fall on the judges when it comes to juggling their tight schedules. Moran, who already splits her time between Kenai and Homer court, said it will be a matter of fitting more work into her existing time. Sweet said she will transition from being in court two to three times a month to the weekly hearings the joint program will require.

The ultimate goal is for the system to serve as an example that can be picked up and implemented in different communities, Sweet said.

The project’s team will soon review final edits to the program’s handbook, Sweet said. Moran said the team is waiting for a memorandum of understanding from the Attorney General before moving forward to the program’s next steps.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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