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Major legislation introduced to combat crime

WASHINGTON – Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., introduced major bipartisan legislation April 2 aimed at strengthening law enforcement and justice in Indian communities. Some Indian justice advocates said it could be strengthened, but generally agree it is a step in the right direction.

Congressional officials said the legislation is needed in response to violent crime that has reached extreme levels on some reservations due to chronic underfunding of law enforcement and justice programs, and a broken, divided system for policing Indian lands.

“The increase in violence on some reservations is epidemic,” said Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, upon introducing the bill to Congress.

“Violence against women is growing and now one in three women on Indian reservations will be a victim of rape or sexual assault during their lifetime. That is intolerable and we have to stop it.

“We cannot ignore the fact that drug traffickers are now targeting Indian reservations as safe havens because of the lack of police presence and the disjointed system of justice that is in place.”

Thirteen senators from both parties joined Dorgan in offering the legislation, which is called the Tribal Law and Order Act. Similar legislation was introduced last summer, but did not pass Congress.

The committee said the bill is designed to strengthen law enforcement and justice in Indian communities by doing the following:

• Enhancing coordination between the Department of Justice, the BIA, and tribal communities involving the investigation and prosecution of Indian country crimes.

• Encouraging more aggressive prosecution of reservation crimes at the federal level. Between 2004 and 2007, the United States declined to prosecute 62 percent of Indian country criminal cases referred to federal prosecutors, including 72 percent of child sexual crimes and 75 percent of adult rape cases.

• Enhancing the sentencing authority of tribal courts to punish offenders with up to three years imprisonment. Current law limits tribal court sentencing authority to no more than one year for any single offense.

• Expanding programs that authorize tribal police to make arrests for all crimes committed on Indian lands, and that provide direct access to national crime databases to arm police with vital criminal history information about suspects.

• Investing in existing programs meant to improve courts, jails, youth programs and policing efforts in Indian country.

• Addressing the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault in Indian country by enhancing training and coordination to aid the investigation and prosecution of crimes of sexual violence.

Tribal leaders have long said there is a strong need to strengthen law enforcement in Indian communities, but some who have worked in the fields of Native American victim and legal advocacy said the bill doesn’t go far enough.

Betsy Campisi, who has worked with the Pretty Bird Woman House shelter on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, said that the legislation seems generally positive, but she believes the provision to increase the ability of tribes to jail offenders from one to three years is weak, considering how bad some of the crimes are that happen in Indian country.

“Only being able to give a maximum three year sentence still leaves the tribes in a pretty weak position, enforcement wise,” said Campisi, who writes about Native justice-related issues for the popular Daily Kos liberal blog.

Campisi added that she’d like to see more funding for violence prevention programs in the bill as well – particularly for intergenerational trauma counseling and similar approaches.

“While I agree that increased policing is desperately needed, I’d like a more holistic approach so we don’t start to emphasize those ‘bad Indians’ too much without also recognizing the colonialism/boarding school roots of much of the violence.”

“Can you imagine if we gave equal weight to healing and law enforcement?”

Sarah Deer, a victim advocacy legal specialist with the Tribal Law & Policy Institute, agreed that the bill is a good development, but said she’d like to see it place more emphasis on restoring tribal sovereignty.

A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, Deer specifically said the bill should do more to address Alaska Native justice issues, as well as to recognize the power of tribal courts.

“I’m really, really happy to see that the dialogue in Congress is continuing, especially because, for so long, there had been a stalemate,” added Deer, a visiting professor of Indian law at William Mitchell College of Law.

“I’m not convinced that the bill is perfect. Of course, I’m not convinced that any bill is perfect, but this would get us one step closer to bringing justice to Indian victims.”