Tribal Law and Order Act passes

The U.S. Senate has passed the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 in response to what Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., describes as the crisis in law enforcement on many Indian reservations.

Dorgan introduced the act in April 2009 to address high crime rates on reservations, according to a news release from his office. The bill to improve the justice system on American Indian reservations passed by unanimous consent Wednesday as an amendment to a related piece of legislation, H.R. 725, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. Dorgan’s Tribal Law and Order Act had the support of 21 bi-partisan co-sponsors.

“Native American families have a right to live in a safe and secure environment. The federal government has treaty and trust obligations to see that they do," Dorgan said in a statement. "For much of our history, however, the federal government has done a poor job of meeting those obligations. This legislation will help turn that failure around and is a big step forward in fighting violent crime in Indian Country.”

Over the past three years, Dorgan presided over 14 hearings relating to public safety on Indian lands. Indian reservations on average suffer rates of violence more than 2.5 times the national rate, according to Dorgan’s office.

In North Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation suffered 8.6 times the national rate of violence in 2008. In early 2008, there were nine police officers patrolling the 2.3 million-acre reservation. As a result, victims of violence reported waiting hours and sometimes days before receiving a response to their distress calls.

The Department of Justice and Centers for Disease Control reports more than one in three American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes, and two in five will face domestic or partner violence.

To address these shortfalls, Dorgan says his bill establishes accountability measures for federal agencies responsible for investigating and prosecuting reservation crime, and provides tribes with tools to combat crime locally.

Some provisions include:

o Evidence Sharing and Declinations: Federal officials have declined to prosecute more than 50 percent of violent crimes in Indian country and a higher rate of sexual assaults. The bill will require the Department of Justice to maintain data on criminal declinations and share evidence with tribal justice officials when a case is declined.

o 3-year Tribal Court Sentencing: Federal law limits tribal court authority to sentence offenders to no more than one year in prison, which limits their ability to provide justice to the victims and the tribal community. The bill establishes an option for tribes to increase sentencing authority for up to three years where a tribe provides added protections to defendants.

o Deputizing Tribal Police to Enforce Federal Law: The complex jurisdictional arrangement in Indian country prevents tribal police from arresting offenders, even when a crime is committed in plain view. The bill will enhance the Special Law Enforcement Commission program, to deputize tribal police officers to enforce federal laws on Indian lands against all offenders.

o Tribal Police Access to Criminal History Records: Many tribal police have no access to criminal history records. As a result, when pulling over a suspect, the officer has no background on the person who is detained. The bill will provide tribal police greater access to criminal history databases such as the National Crime Information Center.

o Domestic and Sexual Violence: The bill will require tribal and federal officers serving Indian country to receive specialized training to interview victims of sexual assault and collect crime scene evidence. It also requires Indian Health Service facilities to implement consistent sexual assault protocols and requires federal officials to provide documents and testimony gained in the course of their federal duties to aid in prosecutions before tribal courts.

o Programs to Improve Justice Systems and Prevent Crime: The bill reauthorizes and improves programs designed to foster tribal court systems, tribal police departments, and tribal corrections programs. It also updates laws to address high rates of alcohol and substance abuse, and programs to improve opportunities for at risk youth on Indian lands.