Law and order bill wins praise in Indian Country
A bill to improve law and order in Indian Country won praise on Wednesday though time is running out for passage this year.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee spent nearly two years working on the comprehensive measure. S.3320 includes provisions to improve detention facilities, increase tribal powers, encourage tribal-federal coordination, beef up tribal courts and address domestic violence.

Bipartisan supporters of bill said they hope to put a dent in statistics that show American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer the highest rate of violent crime in the U.S. Native women are more likely to be victims of sexual assault that any other racial or ethnic group.

"This is a system that's not working," Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman of the committee, said at a press conference in the U.S. Capitol.

Kurt Luger, the chairman of the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, said the bill was sorely needed. He accused the federal government of failing to live up to its treaty and trust responsibilities to keep Indian communities safe.

"This is an historic piece of legislation," Luger said.

Jackie Johnson Pata, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, also praised introduction of the bill. Though it doesn't include everything tribes requested, she said it will help make the Department of Justice and Bureau of Indian Affairs more accountable.

"Many excellent provisions are in the legislation and there is an opportunity to make constructive change right now," Johnson Pata said. "NCAI looks forward to working with the Senate to get this bill passed."

With just a few months left in the 110th session of Congress, time is critical. Lawmakers will go on break next month, and with the presidential election coming up in November, the opportunity for passage is shorter than normal.

Other high-priority bills also remain unfinished as the session enters its final months. While the Senate finally passed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act earlier this year, the House has yet to take action.

The Senate and the House have approved the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act, another critical item. But the bill has not yet gone to a conference committee to iron out differences between the two versions.

Additionally, opposition from the Bush administration to a key part of the bill could affect its chances. Two prominent U.S. Attorneys -- including Diane Humetewa, the first Native woman to serve as a federal prosecutor -- have criticized a requirement to report the reasons why certain criminal cases are declined.

Dorgan has already held five hearings on a draft version of the bill and plans to hold a field hearing on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to address law and order issues there. A hearing on tribal courts was held today before the committee.

"This is what Indian Country needs –- the tools to finally get tough on crime," said Tex Hall, the chairman of the Inter-Tribal Economic Alliance and the immediate past president of NCAI. "Nowhere else in America would you find crimes of rape and domestic violence going unprosecuted at such appallingly high rates."

Besides Dorgan, co-sponsors of the bill are: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the vice chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee; Sen. Joe Biden (D-Delaware), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), who is retiring at the end of the year; Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee; Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut); Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota); Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Oregon); Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington); Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota); and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana).

Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-South Dakota) introduced a companion version in the House.

S.3320, Tribal Law and Order Act:
Sen. Dorgan on Senate Floor | Text of Bill

Relevant Documents:
Sen. Dorgan Statement | Sen. Biden Statement | Sen. Baucus/Sen. Tester Statement | Sen. Johnson Statement | Sen. Thune Statement

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