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Garcia: It's time for action

Indian country has lived with horrifically high rates of violent crime in our communities for years, and it appears that this reality has finally caught the attention of policy-makers and the public. Much of the momentum on this issue was sparked by the efforts of the Indian women leaders who pushed the tribal amendments to the Violence Against Women Act of 2005. We have also been aided by countless visits by tribal leaders to Washington to raise this issue, federal crime reports that demonstrate the dramatically higher rates of violent crime on Indian reservations, news articles that have highlighted the problems, and most recently the Amnesty International Report, ''Maze of Injustice.''

Recent actions of important members of Congress and the Bush administration suggest that Washington, D.C., is finally listening, and there is a window of opportunity right now to make constructive change. I had the opportunity to testify recently before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and made the following four proposals.

First, we need to reaffirm and support tribal government authority to protect their communities. Since the Oliphant decision in 1978, the National Congress of American Indians has urged Congress to reaffirm tribal inherent criminal jurisdiction over all persons within Indian country. NCAI has also long advocated for an amendment to Public Law 280 that would allow tribes to initiate retrocession. We know that restoring tribal criminal jurisdiction has historically proven controversial, but the lives of our people are on the line and we must make progress where it is possible.

There is growing support to restore tribal law enforcement in one area where federal and state enforcement is failing completely - domestic violence committed by non-Indian family members. Congress should affirm tribal authority to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians who cohabitate with an Indian family on Indian land. Jurisdiction would be based on domicile and consent - by living in the tribal community on tribal land, a person consents to tribal laws regulating domestic relations. This is a common-sense solution to a very real problem.

Second, we need to improve and hold accountable the federal law enforcement response at the Department of Justice. The one-two punch of the Major Crimes Act and the sentencing limitations in the Indian Civil Rights Act leave tribes dependent on the DOJ for investigation and prosecution of major felonies on most reservations. But federal prosecutors decline as many as 85 percent of the cases referred by tribes. We have serious concerns that the DOJ leadership places no priority on addressing crime in Indian country, and is subject to no oversight.

To ensure accountability, Congress should establish an Office of Assistant Attorney General for Indian Law Enforcement within the DOJ. This position should be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate to make sure that there is leadership and oversight on Indian country crime. Congress should also require the DOJ to collect and share data on referrals and declinations of prosecution by the U.S. attorneys' offices and to coordinate with tribal and BIA police on crime statistics reporting. With these tools in place, Congress, the administration and tribal leaders can make sure that federal prosecutors are doing their job.

Third, we need to increase cooperation between tribal, state and federal law enforcement. Criminals do not respect jurisdictional boundaries. Law enforcement has been significantly improved where tribal, state and local police work together, but too many local law enforcement agencies are reluctant to work with tribal law enforcement. Congress should establish incentives to increase cooperation between tribal, state and federal law enforcement. This program can be modeled after a successful tribally initiated Wisconsin law that provides additional funding to county and tribal law enforcement agencies who enter into cooperative agreements.

Fourth, we need to increase resources for law enforcement. Basic law enforcement protection and services are severely inadequate on Indian reservations. To put it in perspective, Indian country law enforcement officers make up 0.004 percent of all law enforcement officers in the United States, yet they patrol 2 percent of the land of the United States and 1 percent of the population. Funding must be increased and streamlined for police, courts and detention and rehabilitation facilities.

These recommendations and others are explained in greater detail in my testimony, which is available on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Web site. Lives are on the line, and I feel a tremendous responsibility as NCAI president to push forward on these issues. Of course NCAI needs tribal leaders to help us shape the solutions that will work best for Indian country. We have been talking with Sen. Byron Dorgan and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chair and vice chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, about the development of a legislative vehicle. We have also been meeting with DOJ officials and met with outgoing Attorney General Roberto Gonzales. We will be hosting a one-day summit on improving law enforcement in Indian country at the NCAI Annual Meeting in November in Denver, Colo. I encourage all tribal leaders to join us and engage on this critically important issue.

Joe A. Garcia is president of National Congress of American Indians.