Senate Committee on Indian Affairs focuses on justice issues

A memorial to Ashlynne Mike at the bus stop on the Navajo Nation where she went missing on May 2, 2016. The 11-year-old girl was found dead a day later and 27-year-old Tom Begaye Jr., is facing kidnapping and murder charges in connection with the crime. Photo by Strong Warriors / Facebook

Two landmark tribal justice laws have made a significant impact in Indian Country in the last six years and key members of Congress are looking to build on those gains.

The Tribal Law and Order Act became law in 2010 and it set the stage for the Violence Against Women Act three years later. Both were written to help tribes address high rates of crime on their reservations, including violence against women.

S.2920, the Tribal Law and Order Reauthorization Act, continues those efforts by extending key provisions of the 2010 law. The bill, which was introduced by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) on May 11, focuses on some major issues raised by tribes and law enforcement in a series of hearings and roundtables, such as substance abuse, Native youth and access to data.

"The bill would address federal accountability; increase data sharing and access to databases; support alternatives in detention; reauthorize and build on resources for public safety efforts; and improve justice for Indian youth," Barrasso, who serves as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said on the Senate floor last week. "It would also assist Indian tribes in addressing violent and drug crimes through federal courts."

Substance abuse and Native youth also motivated the introduction of S.2785, the Tribal Youth and Community Protection Act. The measure expands on the Violence Against Women Act by recognizing the "inherent authority" of tribes to arrest, prosecute and sentence any person -- regardless of race -- for drug crimes and domestic violence against children.

Native women carry signs reading Project Our Penojek (Children) during a rally at the U.S. Supreme Court on December 7, 2015. Photo by Indianz.Com

"Tribal communities must have every tool they need to protect themselves from folks who traffic illegal drugs and harm children in Indian Country," Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), who serves as the vice chair of Barrasso's committee, said last month.

Both measures are set for their first hearing on Wednesday and, judging by the committee's track record, they are poised to advance to the floor quickly. The committee has approved 11 bills in the last two months alone and Barrasso is hoping to get S.2920 signed into law before the end of the 114th Congress this year.

S.2785 faces a more difficult path because of the tribal jurisdiction angle but advocates have noted that non-Indians are being treated fairly by the tribes that have complied with the Violence Against Women Act. There have been no challenges to tribal authority so far although it's possible that some could emerge in the future.

Substance abuse has been a hot topic on Capitol Hill and in the White House and a recent tragedy has generated more discussion about justice systems in Indian Country. The death of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike on the Navajo Nation earlier this month is prompting calls to boost law enforcement on reservations and restore more power to tribes themselves.

"For decades, our laws have emasculated tribal governments and tribal authority. If tribal officials are denied the opportunity to solve these problems, and are not held accountable when they continue to occur, they will keep happening," Kevin Washburn, the former head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, wrote in The Albuquerque Journal last week.

Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez and employees of the Northern Edge Navajo Casino in New Mexico release yellow balloons in memory of Ashlynne Mike. Photo from Navajo Nation OPVP Russell Begaye And Jonathan Nez / Facebook

A resolution in support of S.2785 is pending before the Navajo Nation Council. It was written before Ashlynne's kidnapping and murder but it expresses a sentiment that has been voiced at vigils and gatherings following her death on the New Mexico portion of the reservation.

"The Navajo Nation would tremendously benefit from the passage of S.2785, by protecting Navajo children within the Navajo Nation from violence," states Legislation No. 0134-16.

A new Department of Justice report also makes the case for more tribal authority. Native women and men suffer from the highest rates of domestic violence in the nation and they are more likely to be victimized by non-Natives than non-Hispanic Whites, according to the data.

"While the results on interracial and intraracial victimizations in this report are not surprising, they provide strong support for Indian nations’ sovereign right to prosecute non-Indian offenders," the National Institute of Justice wrote in the report.

A different youth tragedy put a spotlight on a provision in the Tribal Law and Order Act that hasn't been fully implemented despite pressure from Indian Country. The 2010 law requires DOJ to allow tribes to access national law enforcement databases for background checks, fingerprint services, arrest reports and other key data.

Members of the Tulalip Tribes welcome a victim of a school shooting back to the reservation In Washington in November 2014. Photo from Tulalip News / Facebook

Had the Tulalip Tribes of Washington been able to submit a domestic violence protection order against Raymond Lee Fryberg Jr. into the system, he likely would not have been able to purchase several firearms, one of which was used in a school shooting that claimed the lives of five young people in October 2014. He has since been sentenced to two years for buying those guns.

DOJ has since stepped up its efforts to comply with the law but S.2920 includes provisions to ensure that data-sharing continues. It also allows tribes to access data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The hearing on Wednesday takes place at 2:15pm in Room 628 of the Senate Dirksen Office Building. In addition to S.2920 and S.2785, lawmakers will take testimony on S.2916, a bill to address leasing issues for Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico.

The hearing will be webcast on the committee's website. The witness list follows:
Mr. Michael S. Black
Director, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

Mr. Tracy Toulou
Director, Office of Tribal Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.

The Honorable J. Michael Chavarria
Governor, Santa Clara Pueblo, Espanola, NM

The Honorable Dana Buckles
Councilman, Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes, Poplar, MT

The Honorable Alfred Urbina
Attorney General, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Tucson, AZ

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Legislative Hearing to receive testimony on the following bills: S. 2785, S. 2916, & S. 2920 (May 18, 2016)

National Institute of Justice Report:
Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men (May 2016)

Indian Law and Order Commission Report:
A Roadmap For Making Native America Safer (November 2013)

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