Violent crime remains high on tribal lands
More needs to be done, officials testify
WASHINGTON — The level of violent crime on reservations is still far higher than in other communities a year after broad measures to boost law enforcement took effect, officials told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Thursday.
Witnesses from the Interior Department, Justice Department, tribal governments and the National Congress of American Indians said the Tribal Law and Order Act is a good start, but more needs to be done.
“There are tremendous public safety problems in Indian country, and we are a long way from having fully researched them to understand their scope,” said Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli.
The act increased maximum criminal sentences in tribal courts from one year to three years, created more special prosecutor positions to aid tribes, made it easier to apply for law–enforcement grants and created programs to train and increase ranks of Indian police, among other things.
Perrelli said the Justice Department has made progress on several provisions of the act, adding assistance programs and as many as 18 special prosecutors by the end of the year.
The Interior Department also met its goal of reducing crime by 5 percent on four reservations known for high crime rates, said Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk, and the department expects more drops in violent crime on those reservations this year.
He attributed the reduction in crime partly to an increase in police, which he said is still needed in many places.
“On many reservations, there is no 24–hour police coverage,” Echo Hawk said.
The act itself still needs tweaks and additions, said Troy Eid, an attorney who works with the Navajo nation and leads a commission that oversees how the act is implemented.
While it is easier to apply for grants, for example, the money still comes with too many stipulations, Eid said. In some cases only about 10 percent can be used. Other times, tribes cannot spend the money within the time limit set by the federal government.
“Until those programs are reformed, the money won’t go into the hands of those who need it,” he said.
Eid said he is looking at a project he worked on years ago – the funding of the Dilcon Courthouse in Navajo County – in an effort to figure out how to improve the federal grants. For the Dilcon project, the state of Arizona helped the Navajo Nation get a single funding source instead of forcing the tribe to apply for federal grants year after year during construction.
“They were able to use the federal system as a case study on what not to do,” Eid said after the hearing. “So we’re going to look at what happened in Arizona.
“Can we do that nationally?” he asked. “Will it be possible to change the grant programs federally for all Indian nations so they can do what Arizona was able to do with the Navajo Nation?”
Tribal leaders at the hearing said the U.S. should eventually give tribal governments more power in what crimes they can prosecute. Currently, they can only prosecute and punish Indian offenders for crimes that happen on Indian lands.
Theresa Pouley, a judge for the Tulalip tribe in Washington state, said nontribal suspects can sometimes commit crimes without being punished if they can escape tribal lands in time.
“No citizen of the United States is safe if the message we send is: Run from tribal police,” she said.