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Sen. Dorgan plans bill to address Indian Country crime
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Filed Under: Law | National | Politics

The leader of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee is asking tribes to help develop a bill to reform law enforcement on reservations.

On November 7, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) sent a concept paper to tribes that outlines a number of "deficiencies" in the justice system in Indian Country. He hopes the document will lead to a legislative package that addresses the "public safety crisis" on reservations.

"This concept paper is merely a set of ideas and we would like to solicit your comment and ideas before deciding on a strategy," the chairman of the committee wrote.

The paper includes a summary of legislative proposals. They were divided into six major categories: federal accountability-coordination measures; state accountability-coordination measures; empowering tribal law enforcement agencies and tribal governments; programs and resources for tribal justice systems; collection of Indian Country crime data; and a domestic violence and sexual assault pilot project

Most of the proposals will be familiar to Indian Country, as they were based on a series of hearings and listening sessions held by the committee. The federal accountability section, for example, requires more data on prosecution and declination rates by the U.S. Attorney's Offices throughout the nation.

According to the paper, federal prosecutors declined to prosecute 60 percent of sexual assault cases. In a recent series, The Denver Post said 62 percent of all Indian Country cases were declined.

The state accountability section seeks to address Public Law 280 states, like California, where the state has been granted criminal jurisdiction on reservations. One legislative proposal calls for states to cede their authority if they cannot meet minimum funding and personnel requirements.

The tribal law enforcement section contains what would probably be the most controversial aspect of any legislation. It calls for the expansion of a program in Colorado that allows tribal police officers to make arrests for "all crimes" in Indian Country.

Currently, tribes lack the power to arrest or prosecute non-Indians without explicit language in a treaty or under a federal statute. Any provision to expand tribal authority faces constitutional concerns, as noted by retired Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), the former chairman of the committee.

"I tried over and over," Campbell told The Denver Post of his efforts to make Indian Country crime a priority. "But it goes back to old prejudices. 'I don't trust those Indians. I'm not going to let them try me.'"

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), another former chairman of the committee, also urged tribal leaders not to seek legislation to expand their authority. He cited "political" opposition to the idea when he spoke at a National Congress of American Indians conference in Washington, D.C., in winter 2006.

According to the concept paper, programs for Indian Country law enforcement and justice have seen significant reductions during the Bush administration. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, FBI investigations on reservations are down by as much as 87 percent in some states, the committee said.

Other programs have been cut by millions and millions of dollars and the White House has even sought to eliminate some of them. The federal government has a backlog of $400 million in tribal detention facility construction, the paper said.

With regard to data, one legislative proposal calls on the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Attorneys to track crimes in Indian Country and potentially report them separately in the annual "Uniform Crime Reports" that are issued by the FBI. The Department of Justice would be required to provide an annual report on Indian Country crime.

Domestic violence and sexual assault has long been a problem in Indian Country but the issue has gained more prominence due to the release of an Amnesty International report earlier this year. American Indian and Alaska Natives women are victimized at rates far higher than any other racial or ethnic group, and most of the perpetrators are non-Native.

The proposal calls for a pilot project to acknowledge tribal inherent authority to prosecute domestic violence and sexual violence assaults. "Crimes against Indian women and children strike at the very heart of tribal sovereignty," the paper states.

Dorgan didn't give a concrete timeline for the legislation but said it would be developed "over the next few months." The committee is accepting comments via e-mail and fax.

Relevant Documents:
Concept Paper | Press Release

Amnesty International Report:
Full Report | Press Release

Online Discussion:
Violence against Native American and Alaska Native Women (April 24, 2007)

Relevant Links:
Join Voices with Native American and Alaska Native Women and Take Action to Stop the Violence -
Senate Indian Affairs Committee -

Related Stories:
Justice reform slow to come to Indian Country (11/14)
Series explores justice in Indian Country (11/13)
Editorial: Address violence in Indian Country (10/25)
Comanche Nation tackles domestic violence (10/17)
Editorial: Address violence against Native women (10/9)
Opinion: Restore full jurisdiction to tribes (10/8)
Native women tell Senate panel of violence, assaults (9/28)
Vigil in Colorado calls attention to domestic violence (8/14)
Opinion: Women and children can't wait for justice (8/3)
NPR: Criminals target a 'lawless' Indian Country (7/27)
Native women seek end to domestic violence (07/12)
US Attorney: Criminal injustice in Indian Country (6/25)
NCAI concerned about DOJ's commitment to tribes (5/29)

Utne Reader: Finding justice for Native women (5/17)
Deer: Demanding justice for Native women victims (5/4)
Editorial: Better approach to crimes against women (5/3)
Ex-DOJ aide cites 'concern' about Indian focus (5/24)
'No one cares' about violence against Native women (4/30)
Editorial: Injustice for indigenous women (4/27)
Editorial: U.S. fails to protect Native women (4/26)
BIA ties violence against women to meth abuse (4/26)
Violence against Native women a 'national disgrace' (4/25)
Report details 'maze' Native women victims face (4/25)
Amnesty report on violence against Native women (4/24)

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