FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – A national panel of judicial and law enforcement experts traveled the country taking comment on public safety issues on American Indian reservations, where federal statistics show the violent crime rates can be 20 times the national average.
In Palm Springs, Calif., the Law and Order Commission heard about the patchwork of legal systems imposed on tribal members. In Alaska, commissioners talked with a leader who told them each of the dozens of Native women they had met that day had been raped. In Phoenix, they heard from Navajo police who said drunken drivers often travel onto the vast reservation undetected because of lack of communication between tribal officers and outside law enforcement.
What the commission came up with is a 324-page report that seeks to close gaps in public safety in tribal communities. The report, “Strengthening Justice for Native America: A roadmap,” was released Tuesday, a day ahead of the White House Tribal Nations Conference. The recommendations now go to Congress and the president.
Among the report’s 40 recommendations is giving tribes more control over crime and justice on their reservations, including an expansion of authority to prosecute non-Indians. The Tribal Law and Order Act and provisions of the Violence Against Women Act do that to an extent. But Commission Chairman Troy Eid said federal laws and policies overall remain outdated and stand in the way of making tribal communities safer.
“If you can imagine a world where tribes have that authority, and you respect federal constitutional rights … it starts to be a solvable problem,” he said. “People know what to do.”
The commission has set a 10-year goal to implement the recommendations, a date that would mark 100 years since American Indians were granted the right to vote. Some of the recommendations will require acts of Congress, while others such as requiring federal officials to testify in tribal court cases, can be implemented through policy changes, Eid said.
U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said the department shares the commission’s commitment to strengthening public safety systems on reservations and recognizes that more needs to be done to combat crime. The agency has prioritized Indian Country cases in the past few years and built on partnerships with tribes.
“We look forward to studying the recommendations and working with stakeholders on solutions that can address the most challenging public safety issues confronting Native American communities,” Hornbuckle said.
The nine-member commission was established through the Tribal Law and Order Act, which expanded the sentencing authority of tribal courts that meet certain criteria; allowed for the appointment of special U.S. attorneys to prosecute violent crimes on reservation land; and revamped training for reservation police officers.
The report touches on that law but also looks at grant funding for tribes, victim protection, policing Indian Country, tribal court systems that and educational services for tribal youth incarcerated in federal facilities.
One chapter of the report is dedicated to Alaska, a state with about 230 Native villages that was exempt from federal legislation to combat crime in Indian Country. Commissioner Jefferson Keel, a former president of the National Congress of American Indians, said those carve-outs should be eliminated, with Alaska Native communities given the ability to administer court systems that would instill respect for the law.
“Justice should not be tainted by race,” he said.
NCAI spokeswoman Melinda Warner said what she found interesting was that the federal government has provided almost no education funding for juveniles in federal lockups, or resources for rehabilitation. She said the benefit of the report is knowledge about the shortfalls in Indian Country.
“Without knowing exactly what’s going on, we can’t adequately fix it,” she said.
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