SCIA focuses on justice, mental health, water

WASHINGTON – A flurry of activity has overcome the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, with a tribal justice bill making it out of committee and several other bills, including ones focused on Indian youth suicide and tribal water rights, receiving attention.

On Sept. 10, the committee approved legislation known as the Tribal Law and Order Act. The bill had strong bi-partisan support from members of SCIA, which approved it on a voice vote.

The legislation, stewarded by Chairman Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., is designed to boost law enforcement efforts by providing tools to tribal justice officials to fight crime in their own communities, improving coordination between law enforcement agencies, and increasing accountability standards.

Several tribal officials have testified in favor of the bill. They said its measures are needed to curb epidemic levels of violence on some reservations due to chronic underfunding of law enforcement and justice programs, and a broken system for policing Indian lands.

Dorgan echoed the concerns, saying, “American Indians have a right to feel safe in their homes and safe in their communities.

“The federal government has statutory and treaty obligations to provide for reservation public safety. This legislation takes steps to ensure that we better meet those obligations and will help improve the sense of security and justice for tribal communities throughout the nation.”

According to the committee, major provisions in the bill, if passed by Congress, would do the following:

• Encourage more aggressive prosecution of reservation crimes at the federal level.

• Enhance the authority of tribal courts to sentence offenders to up to three years in prison.

• Expand programs that deputize tribal police to enforce federal laws, and provide tribal officers with direct access to national crime databases to arm them with vital criminal history information about suspects.

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

• Address 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.

Beyond the justice bill, SCIA also focused on receiving testimony regarding an Indian youth suicide bill, and considered legislation regarding water rights settlement for several tribes.

Dorgan, a lead sponsor of the youth suicide bill, said it aims to increase access to mental health professionals and services for Native American youth through new communications technologies, enhancing access to federal funding and creating innovative recruitment tools.

Native Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 have a suicide rate 3.5 times higher than their peers of other races, and the highest rate of suicide of any population group in the United States, according to government data.

The water bills considered were the Aamodt Litigation Settlement Act, the Taos Pueblo Indian Water Rights Settlement Act, the Crow Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act of 2009, the White Mountain Apache Tribe Water Rights Quantification Act of 2009, and the Spokane Tribe of Indians of the Spokane Reservation Grand Coulee Dam Equitable Compensation Settlement Act.