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Lack of consultation put Adam Walsh Act at odds with tribes over sex offenders

WASHINGTON - After starting with the ;'unbelievable stories,'' pictures and statistics on sexual violence in Indian country, Sen. Byron Dorgan directed a July 17 hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee toward the promise and the problems of the so-called Adam Walsh Act.

AWA mandates the creation of tribal sex offender registries, but it does so on terms that empower the U.S. attorney general to revoke the jurisdiction of tribes that cannot or will not comply with the difficult, expensive and uncertain details of its implementation.

To avoid state arrogation of their sovereignty, many tribes agreed to comply with AWA despite being left out during the law's crafting and enactment. But federal funding has been thin; numerous states have raised problems with AWA implementation, and the Department of Justice only recently issued clarifying regulations.

Robert Moore, a Rosebud Sioux Tribe council member, summed up the problem with AWA for tribes in one sentence: ''Adam Walsh did not happen with tribes; it happened to tribes.''

Dorgan provided the detail in his opening remarks.

''The Adam Walsh Act, I recognize, is not necessarily complete in every respect, but it is an act I think that moves us forward in trying to protect people against violent sexual predators and sex offenders. And for the first time in dealing with these laws, the law [AWA] brought Indian tribes to the table. For example, under guidelines of the act, tribal court convictions will be given full faith and credit with respect to notification [of tribal law officers that sex offenders are within or near tribal jurisdictions] ... In addition, sex offenders who live or work on Indian lands must comply with the registration requirements [of AWA]. This will help reject any notion that Indian lands are safe havens for criminals. ...

''Because the law deals with sex offenders, it has a significant impact on tribes and their lands. ... Far too many crimes go unprosecuted, which leads to under-reporting of the very problem. It is vital it seems to me that governments and victims in Indian country be informed regarding the whereabouts of sex offenders.

''Despite the significant impact of the Adam Walsh Act on Indian tribes, it is the case that there was not sufficient consultation with tribes. In the rush to move without adequate consultation, it had an impact on tribal governments. They should have been consulted.''

Ronald Suppah Sr., chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon, gave one of the day's several accounts of the costs of nonconsultation.

''Warm Springs was surprised and upset, as was most of Indian country, to learn that Congress has jeopardized our sovereignty by subjecting our governments to the mandates of the Adam Walsh Act.''

Despite a lack of experience with registries of any kind, the tribe spent $10,000 learning all it could about the act and its implementation. Seven months after applying to the DoJ for an Adam Walsh implementation grant, the tribe learned that it would get one. But a month later, the department wanted more documentation and, a month later, still more.

''With just nine months [before a statutory deadline] to demonstrate compliance, we have a lot to do,'' Suppah said. ''We must hire and train a registrar and a police officer to operate the registry and carry out its requirements. We must acquire photo and fingerprint computer equipment; upgrade our computers and our links to the state, county and federal systems; and learn the information-sharing protocol. We need to revise our tribal code to comply with Adam Walsh and to train our tribal court about the act.

In doing so, we must make sure all these activities comply with the Adam Walsh guidelines, which DoJ just issued at the start of this month. And most of this is put on hold until we can get our budget squared away with DoJ, which we hope will be fairly soon.''

Failing to meet the April 2009 deadline for compliance, Warm Springs would have to request a one-year extension from the U.S. attorney general.

''We hope we won't have to, but we have a lot to do and time is running out.''

In closing, Suppah called for ensured future funding, insisted on a set of written standards ''for the attorney general's authority to revoke tribal jurisdiction,'' and said that federal prisons, too, should have to keep registries of sex offenders among inmates.