New Senate Indian crime bill introduced

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WASHINGTON - Piggybacking on the Senate's recent passage of an amendment that provides funds to bolster crime initiatives on reservations, a new policy-focused Indian crime bill has been introduced in Congress.

The bill, called the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2008, was introduced July 23 with a bevy of bipartisan support. Sens. John Thune, Max Baucus, Joe Biden, Maria Cantwell, Pete Domenici, Tim Johnson, Jon Kyl, Joseph Lieberman, Lisa Murkowski, Gordon Smith and Jon Tester were all listed as co-sponsors of the legislation.

''Making greater efforts to prosecute reservation crime will require the coordination of tribal, state and federal authorities,'' Thune, one of the bill's original co-sponsors, said in a statement. ''This bill is a positive step toward achieving that goal.''

He explained in a media conference call that the bill is generally designed to improve policy affecting law enforcement efforts in Indian country.

The bill has a number of specific intentions, including increasing sentences that can be imposed by tribal courts, which are currently capped at one year under federal law; allowing tribal law enforcement entities access to federal criminal databases; requiring U.S. attorneys to provide information as to why they don't prosecute certain cases; promoting cross-deputization between tribal and federal law enforcement officials; and improving the reporting of Indian country crime.

Thune said he is especially supportive of provisions in the bill that encourage federal courts to hold hearings and trials on reservations and promote the use of community policing and the pursuit of ''broken windows'' crime theory on reservations. The idea behind the theory is to fix the problems when they are small so they do not become unmanageable. Several large cities, including New York City, have used the theory in crime prevention strategies.

The bill would provide no new funds to accomplish its goals. Rather, it would dovetail with funding via an amendment, passed in the Senate July 16 to the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief bill, which authorized $750 million in funding aimed at public safety efforts on reservations. The House was widely expected to pass a similar amendment to PEPFAR July 24, according to congressional officials.

The $750 million in the Senate amendment breaks down as follows:

"$370 million for detention facility construction, rehabilitation and placement through the Department of Justice;

"$310 million for the BIA's Public Safety and Justice Account, which funds tribal police and tribal courts;

"$30 million for investigations and prosecution of crimes in Indian country by the FBI and U.S. attorneys;

"$30 million for the DoJ's Office of Justice Program for Indian and Alaska Native Programs; and

"$10 million for cross-deputization or other cooperative agreements among state, local and tribal governments.

Thune said there were ''no material differences'' between the previously passed Senate crime amendment and the Tribal Law and Order Act, but that the new legislation amounted to the policy component of what he'd like to see accomplished with the amendment funding.

In response to a question on whether federal policy goals might impact tribal sovereignty, Thune said that a number of tribal officials have been consulted on the plans.

''It's an important point and one that does come into play,'' he said. ''We tried to come up with things that would improve tribes' abilities to improve crime on the reservation ... we're trying to respect tribal sovereignty.''

In June, Thune asked South Dakota tribal leaders, law enforcement officials and other stakeholders to submit their comments and suggestions on a draft bill that was circulated at the time.

As a result of those comments, Thune worked with Sen. Byron Dorgan, chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, to include a provision that allows magistrates to hold trials and other court proceedings in tribal courtrooms as opposed to federal courts. Language was also added ensuring that if tribal governments and federal courts enter into agreements allowing for such trials, the Department of Justice is authorized to provide technical and other assistance.

Thune added that the purpose of the policy bill isn't to revisit jurisdictional issues, which have plagued some reservations.