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Tribal courts highlighted as part of Dorgan 'system fix'

WASHINGTON - Sen. Byron Dorgan highlighted tribal courts as he continued the campaign for legislated system fixes to the delivery of justice in Indian country that began with the Tribal Law and Order Act, introduced in Congress July 23 with bipartisan backing from Democrats and Republicans alike.

The July 24 hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, chaired by Dorgan, D-N.D., focused on the violent crimes in Indian country that ''fall through the cracks'' or otherwise go unprosecuted. Dorgan began the hearing by taking note of the 62 percent of reported violent crimes in Indian country the Department of Justice declines to prosecute. (The federal government has jurisdiction over most major crimes in Indian country.)

Theresa M. Pouley, a Tulalip Tribes court judge and president of the Northwest Tribal Court Judges Association, gave out the statistics in written testimony.

''The Department of Justice's own statistics demonstrate better than anything else the need for Congress to compel the Justice Department to re-prioritize its responsibilities to Indian Country. Despite statistic[s] showing a crisis in violent crime rates, Justice [o]fficials cited the filing in 2006 of 606 total cases in all of Indian country as evidence that it was effectively fulfilling its criminal justice responsibilities. ... 606 total criminal cases filed for all of Indian country - covering over 562 federally recognized tribes with a population of approximately 1.6 million amounts to little more than one prosecution per tribe per year.

''Contrast the Justice Department's 606 criminal filings with the 493 criminal cases filed in the Tulalip Tribal Court alone in 2006 - a single reservation with a population under 4,000.'' Information on the so-called declinations of DoJ is seldom even available to tribal justice systems, she added.

In testimony delivered from the witness table, Pouley focused on rape.

''Before I came here to testify, I was visiting with my husband about what that testimony might be. And I said, and repeated to him, one in three Indian women are going to be raped in their lifetime. My 15-year-old daughter was listening and said, 'Mom, is that true?' And the look on her face said, 'Mom, am I the one, or am I the three?'''

Pouley pledged to support Dorgan's bill, which would permit tribes (on a voluntary basis) to stiffen penalties for violent crimes and rape from one to three years in prison. Tribes that opted for more than one-year sentencing authority would have to provide public defenders under the amended Indian Civil Rights Act, a provision that Roman J. Duran, associate judge of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and first vice president of the National American Court Judges Association, said could lead to unintended consequences.

''Unless funding is also provided for a public defense system, tribes would simply amend their sentencing laws to under one year. We think this needs to be reconsidered, especially in light of all the potential law enforcement activity authorized by this [Tribal Law Enforcement] Act.''

Joseph Flies-Away, chief judge of the Hualapai Tribe, also supported the bill, but warned that longer sentencing authority would take more funding for detention facilities.

Pouley encountered no contradiction at the hearing that because of jurisdictional and resource considerations, tribes must continue to rely on the federal government for prosecution of Indian and non-Indian criminal offenders on reservations.

Among the many others in Indian country who welcomed the bill was Tex Hall. The chairman of the Inter-Tribal Economic Alliance issued a statement of praise for the proposed legislation.

''This is what Indian country needs - the tools to finally get tough on crime,'' Hall said. ''Nowhere else in America would you find crimes of rape and domestic violence going unprosecuted at such appallingly high rates. The best way for us to protect our sovereignty is to protect our people.''

Chairman Rodney Bordeaux of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe said Dorgan and his co-sponsors will have the committed backing of his administration as the bill moves forward.

''We'll fight for 100 percent appropriations, too.''

The tribal court system needs improving, he said. And after a recent patch of trouble (now settled) with police certification at Rosebud, Bordeaux said he is determined to see efficient prosecution and sentencing of offenders on the reservation. The Tribal Law and Order Act is a good start on necessary system fixes, he said.