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Congress puts focus on Indian Country crime

With the passage of a massive $388 billion spending bill, Congress has required the federal government to provide regular updates on the alarmingly high rates of crime in Indian Country.

The provision was included in the section of the bill covering the Department of Justice. It directs the agency to submit quarterly reports on its efforts to reduce murder rates, domestic violence, child abuse and other violent crimes committed against American Indian and Alaska Native men, women and children.

"These reports shall include: the number of agents assigned to Indian Country; man-hours worked in Indian Country; the amount and type of training provided; the number of matters initiated; the number of cases; the number of subjects/defendants; the number of convictions; and the amount of restitution ordered," the report accompanying the omnibus package states.

This is first time Congress has asked for such detailed information about law enforcement in Indian Country, a request that speaks to the extremely high rates of crime on reservations. According to DOJ statistics, Native men and women are more than twice as likely to be victimized than any other racial and ethnic group.

"You can take every crime -- child abuse, sexual assault, homicide, assault -- and that is true," said Thomas B. Heffelfinger, the U.S. Attorney for the state of Minnesota and chair of the Native American Issues subcommittee at DOJ, at an Indian law conference this year.

Young Native Americans aren't immune either. Based on federal statistics, Native youth ages 12 to 17 were more likely to be the victims of rapes, assaults, shootings, beatings and related crimes than their counterparts.

And there don't seem to be any signs of improvement. Even as the violent crime rate has dropped throughout the United States, Indian Country continues to suffer.

To combat the problem, lawmakers are dedicating $2.75 million and 27 positions for the FBI's Indian Country unit. The money, according to the report, is to be used to investigate "violent crimes against Native Americans, gang violence and crimes related to Indian gaming."

This shift in priorities surfaced earlier this year when Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia), an ardent foe of all forms of gambling, secured language allocating $5.5 million and 53 positions for the FBI's Indian Country unit. But his provision, which only passed the House, restricted the focus to alleged "illegal activity at Native American Casinos."

The language was subsequently revised, cutting Wolf's figures in half and including all forms of violent crime in Indian Country. But casino crime hasn't been left out entirely, with lawmakers asking DOJ to provide quarterly updates on the activities of the Indian Gaming Working Group, a multi-agency effort that targets casino crime.

Still, numbers on casino crime are difficult to come by. At a press briefing of the IGWG in July, officials declined to provide statistics, only saying that they have 31 open cases for more than 300 tribal casinos.

"About half the cases we look at deal with theft of proceeds," Ernie Weyand of the Indian Country unit said at the briefing.

Some information, though, can be gleamed from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona, which provides yearly updates on crime in Indian Country. According to the most recent report, there were just two cases of theft from a gaming establishment for 22 tribes that generated $1.35 billion in revenues over the last fiscal year. Both cases originated from the same tribe.

However, the office stopped its practice of reporting the number of "active" cases. In the previous report, there were a total of seven casino crime investigations, according to the office.

Elsewhere in the omnibus, the lawmakers said they were concerned about the high rate of domestic violence against Native women. They provided $7.55 million for DOJ to create a liaison office to help Native communities "identify and address their needs in order to develop a community response for the elimination of domestic violence."

Similar concern was shown for the state of Alaska, which is ranked number one for rapes, the rate at which men kill women and the rate of stolen firearms. "Although violent crime rates have dropped across the nation last year, federal statistics have shown that violent crimes have been on the rise in Alaska," the lawmakers wrote. Alaska Natives make up 16 percent of the state's population.

Violence against Indian women is expected to take a high profile next year with the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act. Statistics show that nearly a third of all American Indian and Alaska Native women will be the victim of sexual assault in their lifetime, the highest rate of any racial or ethnic group.

At the National Congress of American Indians conference last month, tribal advocates praised Sen. Joe Biden (D-Delaware) for seeking to address the concerns of Native women. But Biden's staff subsequently said provisions that would guarantee more funding for domestic violence and restore tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians were not guaranteed to be included in the final bill that he introduces.

Consolidated Appropriations Act:
Bill Text | Joint Explanatory Statement | HR 4818