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Justice’s Wave of Action in Indian Country

Forget about the Interior Department. The Obama administration is increasingly using the Department of Justice as its major pathway to achieve a lasting legacy in Indian country by reducing the crime that runs rampant on many reservations.

WASHINGTON – Forget about the Interior Department. The Obama administration is increasingly using the Department of Justice as its major pathway to achieve a lasting legacy in Indian country by reducing the crime that runs rampant on many reservations.

In July alone, there were visits from top Justice administration officials to multiple reservations, an announcement of new crime prevention and reduction legislation aimed at reducing violence against Native women, and a presidential proclamation highlighting the multi-pronged approach of the administration to date in the tribal safety arena. Never before has Indian country seen so much attention from the federal level aimed at dramatically curbing the crime crises facing many reservations.

Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli explained in an op-ed written recently for Indian Country Today Media Network that all the work is being done in an effort to “grapple with the public safety crisis in tribal communities.” He added that “much work remains to be done” and noted that the department is “advocating for more tools to address a problem that tribal leaders across the country have identified as a top priority—ending the scourge of domestic violence.”

Beyond the efforts at DOJ, the Obama administration has planted a firm flag in Indian country via the other usual agencies in the federal arsenal, including Interior, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education, but if its officials are to be remembered for helping Indians, they, above else, seem to want to be remembered for helping curb the daunting crime statistics that plague so many Indian reservations today (especially those that suggest that one in three Indian women reports having been raped during her lifetime, while drugs, gangs, and other forms of violence are major problems in some tribal communities).

The thought process behind this focus, administration officials say, is that before lasting successes can be had in the areas of health, education, and economic development, crime reduction has to be addressed in a major way. In other words, Indians have to feel safe in order to prosper. Given the daunting socioeconomic statistics of many reservations with some facing up to 50 percent unemployment rates, according to government data, the emphasis has been welcomed by many tribal citizens who view crime as a major factor that has held their communities back.

The ideology and focus make sense to many tribal leaders, but there is also the perennial worry that Indian country will be siloed into primarily being addressed by the federal government on the tribal justice front alone. And no one wants the perception that the only help for Indians is to support more police officers, jails, and anti-domestic abuse programs. The major concern is that if those are the only areas that the federal government chooses to emphasize, then real, multi-pronged progress will never be made on a variety of other fronts that could improve tribal outlooks.

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Still, the focus tends to be welcomed, especially since there had long been talk in other presidential administrations about curbing tribal crime, but few efforts have been as sustained and well-publicized as those under President Barack Obama. Tribal justice officials note that the rates for Indian country crime have tended to stay alarmingly high for as long as such data has been collected—even after past presidential administration officials have said they wanted to tackle the problem.

For his part, Obama seems is keeping the focus alive, having signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law in July 2010 with a promise that it would improve crime issues on a variety of fronts, especially by increasing tribal control over law enforcement efforts. On the one-year anniversary of his signature, the president issued an official statement marking the date to explain the progress that he feels has been made. “A year ago today, I was proud to sign the Tribal Law and Order Act into law,” he said July 29. “American Indians and Alaska Natives have long been victimized by violent crime at far higher rates than the rest of the country, and the Tribal Law and Order Act is already helping us better address the unique public safety challenges that confront tribal communities.”

He noted that as part of the law – one that he supported while a member of Congress – tribes have gained greater sentencing authority, the rights of tribal defendants have been bolstered, and services for Indian victims have been increased.

“We’re working together to combat alcohol and drug abuse, and to help at-risk youth in more effective ways,” Obama said. “We’ve established new guidelines and training for officers handling domestic violence and sex crimes. And we’ve expanded recruitment and retention of Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal officers, and given them better access to the criminal databases they need to keep people safe.

“These are important steps in addressing serious issues. And as long as I am president, we will continue to strengthen and fortify our government-to-government relationship with Indian country.”

While Obama’s words show a level of support at the very top level of government, the strongest indicator to tribal officials that things are working is the level of on-the-ground commitment. In a series of public appearances with DOJ officials in July, several tribal leaders said they are pleased with the progress so far, but they still await the ultimate indicator of a job well done: lower overall crime statistics. And many of those statistics won’t be known until after the 2012 presidential elections.