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Statistics show prosecution in Indian country is lacking

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DENVER - Federal prosecutors are more likely to decline a case that involves crime in Indian country than to prosecute, according to statistics.

Further, 76 percent of all potential cases are declined by U.S. attorneys who have jurisdictions in Indian country; and they are declined for a variety of reasons, notwithstanding an incomplete investigation.

This rate of declinations has created frustration and anger, but there may be explanations as to why this problem occurs on such a regular basis - lack of resources for law enforcement agencies on tribal lands.

Funding is almost always the first word used by any tribal leader or law enforcement officer when speaking of the issue.

At the 64th annual NCAI convention, held in Denver in November, law enforcement was elevated to a high priority of conversation and movement toward a solution seems probable if the tribal suggestions are considered.

A potential solution presented by Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Chairman Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., depends on tribal ideas that will lead to new legislation in 2008.

Dorgan and his staff have written a concept paper that inputs tribal organizations, sheriff's associations and others' suggestions that will create the legislation, according to John Harte, Dorgan staff member on law enforcement.

A panel of law enforcement and justice officials faced the NCAI general assembly to discuss problems and offer suggestions.

Diane Enos, president of the Salt River Pima Maricopa community, said the Department of Justice should be educated about how people live and how officers cover large areas. The Salt River Pima are in the middle of Arizona, surrounded by Phoenix, Tempe and Scottsdale, in a metro area and the tribes spend a great deal of money on law enforcement, she said.

''Intergovernmental relations need to be approved. To get meth off the street it must be done with interagency cooperation,'' Enos said.

Prosecution of crimes that occur in Indian country is a concern for tribal officials. U.S. attorneys' declination rate means that in most cases it means that perpetrators are usually left free to continue criminal activity because tribes and tribal courts have no authority over non-Indians or over the type of crime.

Gretchen Shappert, U.S. attorney for the western district in North Carolina and chair of the Native American Issues Subcommittee in the DoJ, said that a better dialogue needs to be established.

''On Attorney General [Alberto] Gonzales' last day, the day he turned in his resignation, we sat down with NCAI and others. It's too bad that had not been done before,'' she said.

''We heard the complaints about the declination rates and we all recognize that a better job of keeping data is necessary.

''Declination does not factor in what a U.S. attorney means; they may want it to go to tribal or state court,'' Shappert said.

She added that law enforcement must do a better job of markup on a case.

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Therein lies a problem. Most law enforcement officers said they don't have time to do a full markup, and in some cases they get to the scene after it has been contaminated. Resources are at the root of the problem, officers argue.

Law Enforcement officers claim it may take up to 18 months to get a set of finger prints back from a federal lab, and since there is no crime lab to specifically serve Indian country anymore, evidence waits for months before processing.

''There is no way to process evidence, therefore no prosecution,'' Enos said.

Troy Eid, U.S. attorney for the District of Colorado, said the perceived gap in law enforcement in Indian country is real.

''The federal system does not serve Native Americans as it should,'' he said.

Eid said that there is a need to think beyond the federal system as it exists. ''Is the federal system going to fulfill the role 50 years from now?''

The Major Crimes Act and the Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe decision, according to Eid, need to be discussed with the intent of rescission or revision.

''And we need to think how to get more resources to Indian country,'' he said.

On the local non-Indian level, he said, he sees a judge and a sheriff. ''Where is the local accountability for tribes? Keep it local and elect your own district attorneys. The most important part of sovereignty is law enforcement,'' Eid said.

Pat Ragsdale, deputy director for the office of Justice Services, said that officers deserved more resources.

''The first Americans are last in public safety,'' he said.

A disadvantage for Indian country comes from tradition and culture.

''One of our instincts is to survive tragedies; we have a tolerance for pain greater than in the mainstream and we are now being toppled by crime and gangs.''

''We never had better support than this group of U.S. attorneys. We need community support to stop bad behavior,'' Ragsdale said. ''Law enforcement can't do it on it's own to make sure our children are safe.''

The crime problem and the lack of resources in Indian country didn't creep up on anybody, said John Harte, assistant to Dorgan.

''President [Gerald] Ford recognized the problem then, but none of the problems were addressed,'' Harte said.