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New law empowers tribal justice systems

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Emilene Ostlind | Aug 09, 2010 09:40 AM

In late July, President Obama, an adopted member of the Crow Tribe of southern Montana, signed the Tribal Law and Order Act.  The measure, introduced by Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) in 2008, aims to smooth out the "jurisdictional maze" of law enforcement on reservations in order to empower tribal communities to better confront crime.

Obama signs Tribal Law and Order Act
credit: National Congress of American Indians

Many tribal communities suffer from rates of crime significantly higher – in some cases 20 times higher – than the nation's average.  Statistically one in three Native American and Native Alaskan women will be raped in her lifetime, and the majority of perpetrators are non-native men exempt from trial by tribal courts. In a video of the Tribal Law and Order Act signing ceremony that took place at the White House on Thursday, July 29, Lisa Marie Iyotte, an enrolled member of the White Clay People, described how federal authorities failed to prosecute the man who beat and raped her until he had attacked two other women. Only some state courts investigate crimes that happen on tribal lands, and federal courts decline to take on any but the most serious cases, meaning that many violations go without prosecution all together. Meanwhile Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement offices are severely underfunded nationwide.


The Tribal Law and Order Act includes measures to increase training and protocols for reservation police and health workers to deal with sexual assault cases, to authorize tribal courts' to issue sentences of up to three years (an extension of the current limit of one year), and to improve coordination between agencies by deputizing tribal and state officers to enforce federal laws on Indian lands, among other provisions.

In the last issue of HCN, reporter John Lancaster and I collaborated on a story about Operation Alliance, a program to boost law enforcement on Indian reservations while new Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement officer recruits complete their training at the Indian Police Academy in New Mexico.  The Tribal Law and Order Act complements this and several other efforts to confront the "unconscionable" levels of crime in Indian country.  For example, the Obama Administration has created positions for additional new Assistant U.S. Attorneys, victim-witness specialists, and a National Indian Country Training Coordinator to serve tribal communities.  It's also launched programs to better integrate police into the communities they serve and overhauled the recruitment process for BIA officers, which has already resulted in the largest hiring increase in history.

Obama says these moves "will empower tribal nations and make a real difference in people’s lives," and many human rights advocates are celebrating passage of the act.  However, as a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs report states, while the act seeks to improve justice, "the system continues to suffer a lack of consistent funding."  The Congressional Budget Office estimates the act will cost $1.1 billion between 2010 and 2014 but appropriations end after that time window. And while the bill passed both the Senate (unanimous) and House (326 to 92) with overwhelming bipartisan support some felt it was too expensive.

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