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PBS: VAWA helps tribes go after non-Indian domestic offenders

PBS NewsHour: Responding to domestic violence on Indian reservations

The Tulalip Tribes of Washington are one of the first to exercise authority over non-Indian offenders as part of S.47, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013:
STEPHEN FEE: In a 1978 decision, the US Supreme Court said Indian tribes with their own tribal justice systems and courts were not allowed to charge non-Indians — unless Congress passed a law.

But Congress didn’t act for 35 years. Then just last year, when lawmakers were reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, sometimes called VAWA, they included a new provision granting tribal courts jurisdiction over a limited number of domestic and dating violence crimes committed by non-Indians on reservations — perhaps allowing people like Lisa Brunner to see justice.

STEPHEN FEE: “While the tribal domestic violence provision doesn’t kick in until March of next year, three Indian reservations have taken part in a pilot program, where they can begin some of those prosecutions now: one reservation in Arizona, one in Oregon, and this Indian reservation, the Tulalip Reservation, a little more than an hour’s drive north of Seattle, Washington.”

Theresa Pouley has served as chief judge on the Tulalip Tribal Court since 2009. She says the responsibility to prosecute offenders on Indian reservations belongs to tribal courts.

THERESA POULEY: “The confused jurisdiction in Indian country which leaves those responsibilities oftentimes to the state and federal government — who don’t effectively prosecute those crimes — creates this place where you have a category of people on Indian reservations who are essentially above the law.”

President Barack Obama signs S.47, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, at the Sidney R. Yates Auditorium at the U.S. Department of Interior in Washington, D.C., March 7, 2013. Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

STEPHEN FEE: “What does this tribal provision in VAWA do to help close that gap?”

THERESA POULEY: “It allows me to treat all domestic violence perpetrators exactly the same, Indian or non-Indian. So I have authority over Indians who commit that crime. This just gives me authority over non-Indians who commit the exact same crime.”

STEPHEN FEE: Since March of this year, the Tulalip tribal prosecutor has brought charges against five alleged non-Indian domestic violence defendants — as of this airing, two have plead guilty, two are awaiting trial, and one case has been dismissed.

But will this new authority actually help stop the crisis of violence against Indian women? One concern: the new law only covers domestic and dating violence — it does not include crimes like assault by a stranger or even rape.

Get the Story:
‘Above the law’: Responding to domestic violence on Indian reservations (PBS NewsHour 11/23)

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