Feds fail to prosecute crimes in Indian Country

U.S. attorneys’ offices declined a third of referred cases in 2017, a quarter of which were sexual assault cases.

 

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice declined to prosecute more than a third of cases referred to them in Indian Country. That’s business as usual according to a new report by the department.

The report reveals that U.S. attorneys’ offices left 37 percent of referred cases from Indian Country unprosecuted in 2017 — a figure slightly up from 2016 and steady with data since 2011, after then-President Barack Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law. The percentage continues to plateau despite funding for tribal law enforcement from the Trump administration. Lawmakers like Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., see the department’s prosecution rate as failing members of federally recognized tribes.

“This report only confirms that Native victims continue to fall through the cracks of our justice system,” Udall wrote to the Associated Press. Federal crime data has long suggested that Indian reservations have higher rates of violent crime than the national average, especially when it comes to violence against women.

A participant in the Greater Than Fear Rally in Rochester, Minnesota. The Violence Against Women Act is set to expire in less than two weeks, making it even more difficult to prosecute perpetrators of assault.

Of the cases that went unprosecuted, over a quarter were allegations of sexual assault against children and adults. “Although difficulties in prosecuting physical assault, sexual assault, and child molestation cases are not unique to Indian country,” the report reads, “structural barriers in Indian country may compound the challenges.”

The Justice Department attributes many of those barriers to the complex organization of law enforcement in Indian Country, which stems largely from a tangled web of jurisdictions. In major crimes like murder or child abuse, which are managed by federal agencies, victims and witnesses often have to travel long distances to testify in federal court. Federal investigators and prosecutors are also rarely based on reservations, making it difficult for them to foster meaningful relationships with communities. Overall, the report cited insufficient evidence as the top reason that cases were declined.

The report follows mixed progress in the Justice Department’s work with tribes. The 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act attempted to improve the relationship between tribes and U.S. attorneys’ offices by codifying tribal liaisons in Indian Country districts, among other goals. But last year, the Office of the Inspector General criticized the department’s response in a report that found that “the Department and its components still lack a coordinated approach to overseeing the assistance it provides in Indian country.”

Before being ousted in early November, Attorney General Jeff Sessions launched multiple initiatives to strengthen law enforcement in Indian Country. In April 2017, he began expanding tribes’ access to national crime databases, and the Justice Department released public safety grant applications to tribal communities early this year. Trent Shores, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma and chairman of the Attorney General’s Advisory Subcommittee on Native American Issues, said in a statement that the department is also expanding cross-deputization, funding for juvenile programs, and services to victims. 

In recent years, tribal courts have increased their own prosecution of non-Native offenders, a job often reserved for federal officials. That’s largely thanks to the Violence Against Women Act, but tribal prosecutors are still limited in their abilities. Meanwhile, the act itself could lapse in less than two weeks unless it’s reauthorized during Congress’ lame-duck session.

Elena Saavedra Buckley is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a friendly, detail-oriented, and self-motivated Development Coordinator to provide administrative support to the Development department. This position will report to...
  • FIELD ORGANIZER, MONTANA
    Help Northern Plains Resource Council protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the...
  • FOR SALE
    Successful llama trekking business with Yellowstone National Park concession for sale! A fun and enriching business opportunity of a lifetime! Call 406-580-5954
  • ALBUQUERQUE VACATION HOME
    Centrally located. One bed, one bath, lovely outdoor patio, well-stocked kitchen.
  • NEW AGRARIAN PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Quivira (www.quiviracoaltion.org), a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that aims to shift current practices of agriculture and land stewardship to those that produce good food, support meaningful...
  • SPECTACULAR SCENIC MOUNTAIN VIEW HOME BUILDING SITE
    Located on top of Sugarloaf Mtn. 5 mi W of downtown Colorado Springs, CO. $80,000.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    opportunity in Eugene, Oregon! To learn more and to apply, visit our website at www.bufordpark.org.
  • FUNDRAISING & OUTREACH COORDINATOR
    Does the prospect of working to protect one of the Southwest's last remaining flowing rivers get you excited? Join the team at Friends of the...
  • DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT SPECIALIST
    Position Summary Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a dynamic, organized, and creative Digital Engagement Specialist to be an essential part of our growing Communications Team....
  • NORTH IDAHO FIELD REPRESENTATIVE
    Founded by sportsmen and women 1936, the Idaho Wildlife Federation (IWF) is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to conserving and enhancing Idaho's natural resources, wildlife, habitat,...
  • SMALL HISTORICAL FARM FOR SALE - NEW MEXICO
    23-acres, adobe home, shop, barn, gardens, pasture, orchard. https://www.zillow.com/homes/222-Calle-Del-Norte,-Monticello,-Nm_rb/ or call 575-743-0135.
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year round outdoor living. REDUCED to: $1.17 MM 575-536-3109
  • GRANTS MANAGER AND EDITOR
    Are you a strong communicator who excels at building relationships, writing winning grant proposals, and staying organized? You sound like a good fit for our...
  • REPORTER
    The Wallowa County Chieftain, has an opening for a reporter. Experience with and understanding of editorial photography also required. Journalism degree or equivalent, an understanding...
  • 2017 JOHN DEERE LAWN MOWER Z930R
    15 hours on it, 3 years warranty, 22,5 HP, $1600 Sale price. Contact: [email protected]
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • HEAD BREAD/PASTRY BAKER AND ASSISTANT POSITIONS
    Hiring Part/Full time for Summer Season - entry level & experienced positions. Year round employment for optimal candidates. Pay DOE.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921