Sen. John Thune on reservation crime

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WASHINGTON - Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., a member of U.S. Congress since 2005, is one of the few current top legislators who actually grew up in a rural area near a reservation - in his case, that of the Rosebud Sioux.

;'I think I'm probably able to identify a little bit better with some of the problems on reservations,'' Thune said. ''There aren't many people in this country, let alone in my state, who spend much time on reservations.''

One story from Thune's youth still haunts him. When he was running track in high school, he heard about a competitor from the Rosebud reservation being knifed to death.

''It's sort of personalized for me,'' he said. ''I don't want the next generation of young people growing up on reservations to have to live in fear.''

Having grown up around tribes, he feels he has a ''better perspective'' and a ''desire to bring about change'' involving reservation crime than many of his colleagues. In this Indian Country Today interview, Thune shares what he's done on the issue so far.

Indian Country Today: What is Congress doing in terms of reservation crime?

Sen. John Thune: There's a lot of stuff we've been working on in this area. One is supporting a study by the General Accountability Office in Washington that would specifically take a look at tribal justice in the Dakotas. It's designed to give us a better idea on what some of the issues are and what some of the solutions are. We think that the GAO study, which is objective and nonpartisan - that it will give us a good idea on how best to respond to what has become what I think has become a much encroaching crisis on reservations.

ICT: Do your colleagues in Congress understand how important it is for Indians to have their needs addressed?

Thune: The responsibility we have as a Congress to act - I think too few of us understand that. People who have reservations and tribal populations in their states probably understand it better than others. My challenge is to get everyone to understand the importance of addressing important Indian issues, like reservation crime.

ICT: What motivates your personal concern?

Thune: I think the Dakotas are areas that really merit serious consideration by policymakers in Washington. If you look at the studies that have already been done, they're pretty telling. One in three Native American women is going to be raped in their lifetime. The crime rates on remote reservations show an average 10 times higher in terms of overall crime than the rest of the nation. DoJ has found that American Indian women are two and a half times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women throughout the rest of the country.

In South Dakota, specifically, the attorney general's office has done some research, and has determined that the homicide rates in South Dakota are almost 10 times higher than those found in the rest of the state. According to the BIA, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has the second-highest rate of crime of all the reservations in the nation.

ICT: So, why is the new GAO study important?

Thune: I think it will validate the arguments that we've been making all along. There needs to be more law enforcement presence; there needs to be more attention given to the U.S. attorney offices in these areas so they have the adequate number of prosecutors to bring some of these cases to trial.

I hope those are some things that will come out of it, along with maybe some recommendations about how to strengthen and improve the tribal justice system.

ICT: When will the study get started?

Thune: We got that added on to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act [reauthorization], which passed in the Senate a few weeks back. Now it still has to pass the House. But we've asked the GAO even if the legislation doesn't get enacted to go ahead and begin the study.

ICT: You've also been working on legislation to curb Indian crime.

Thune: Yes, in the budget this year, we got an amendment adopted that essentially provides another couple hundred million dollars over the next five years to increase the BIA Public Safety and Justice account, which is what funds tribal law enforcement, tribal courts, detention center and what not. It's also an increase in funding for U.S. attorneys to prosecute crimes in Indian country. ...

We were also able to get an amendment adopted in the budget that provides an additional $99 million in budget authority for funding of the Methamphetamine Hot Spots program for 2009. It's a program that trains state and local law enforcement on investigating and prosecuting meth offenders. Obviously, methamphetamine abuse has become a big problem on our reservations.

ICT: The House didn't include these amendments, correct?

Thune: Right. But my hope would be that when the House and Senate meet to work out the differences, they will look kindly upon these provisions.

ICT: Have you reached out to tribes on these issues?

Thune: I've been talking to a couple of tribal chairmen who are looking at changing their constitutions to create greater separation of powers - with more independent judiciaries. Right now, the tribal councils appoint the judges, and there are lots of questions often raised about the independence of the systems. The chairmen are very much giving close consideration to what steps can be taken to help improve tribal justice as well.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has over 2 million acres of land, and at any given time, there are at most three officers a shift covering that amount of geography. If you think about how that translates nationwide - the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is more than two times bigger than the state of Rhode Island. And in Rhode Island, they've got 200 state troopers, plus additional local, county and state officers. That puts it in perspective, I think.

ICT: Why focus on crime over, say, education?

Thune: If you have people living in fear without security, it's awfully hard to have children learning in school. It's hard to attract economic development. Security is just a fundamental responsibility - and the feds certainly have their share of responsibility when it comes to security on reservations.

ICT: Sometimes tribes are cautious when the federal government tries to help, given the many times throughout history when government help has actually done more harm than good. How do you deal with that reality?

Thune: It's important for us to consult with tribal leaders. I've written to tribal leaders across the country, soliciting their input on crime issues. We do very much want bottom-up solutions, where tribes have been consulted. ... We need to do this in a way that doesn't violate or interrupt the government-to-government relationships that tribes share with the feds. But I do think the federal government does have responsibility. In most cases, because law enforcement is a BIA function ... we need more BIA officers out here. ... Whatever model you use, it's got to be respectful of tribal sovereignty.