It looks like American Indian tribal leaders are finally getting something they have been wanting, but not been getting for years, more aggressive and effective federal law enforcement in Indian Country.
Note: Federal law (18 USC § 1151) defines Indian Country as “all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government.”
In its recent report, Indian Country Investigations and Prosecutions, the Department of Justice states that the number of active Indian Country prosecutions being handled by federal prosecutors has increased from 1,091 cases in fiscal year 2009 to 1,677 in fiscal year 2012, an increase of nearly 54% in the Indian Country caseload.
“Across the country, U.S. Attorneys have been focused on fighting crime in Indian Country and reinforcing the bond between federal and tribal law enforcement, which also strengthens the faith that people have in their criminal justice system,” said Attorney General Eric Holder in a press release. “The department will continue in its commitment to working with our tribal partners to build safe, sustainable, and healthy communities in American Indian and Alaska Native communities.”
However, the report also shows that during 2011, U.S. Attorney’s offices declined to prosecute 37% (1,041) of all Indian Country cases referred to them, mainly due to lack of sufficient evidence.
While tribal leaders have criticized the government for declining to prosecute Indian Country cases in the past, the Justice Department contends that case declination statistics alone do not accurately measure the level of cooperation federal prosecutors have achieved with tribal authorities.
“The report shows a new era of partnership between the federal government and American Indian tribes, including an unprecedented level of collaboration with tribal law enforcement,” stated the Justice Department. “The increase in collaboration and communication strengthens the bond of trust between federal and tribal investigators, prosecutors, and other personnel in both federal and tribal criminal justice systems, and it will make communities safer as a result.”
The Problem With Indian Country Justice
Law enforcement in Indian country has traditionally been hindered by a complex system of shared and often overlapping jurisdiction between federal and tribal law enforcement agencies. In 2008, tribes in 28 states operated their own law enforcement agencies.
Currently, the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) share federal jurisdiction over crimes in Indian Country. The BIA alone supports 191 Indian Country law enforcement programs, 42 of which are operated by the BIA and 149 operated by the various 562 federally-recognized tribes.
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Jurisdiction over crimes where the victim and suspect are both Indians, is shared by the federal government and tribal law enforcement agencies.
In 1997, a special committee on Indian Country law enforcement appointed by President Clinton issued a report declaring “a public safety crisis in Indian Country.”
“Basic law enforcement protection and services are severely inadequate for most of Indian Country. This problem affects more than 1.4 million people who depend on the federal government for these services,” stated the Clinton committee’s report. “Simply put, many American citizens living on Indian reservations do not receive even the minimum level of law enforcement services taken for granted in non-Indian communities.”
On July 29, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA). Part of the TLOA established measures by which the federal agencies responsible for investigating and prosecuting violent crime occurring in Indian Country can be held accountable.
The law increased the authority of the tribes to prosecute crimes themselves, while expanding efforts to train and keep Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and tribal police officers. In addition, the law provides federal and tribal police with expanded access to criminal information databases.
The TLOA specifically provides federal resources to better addressed the three most prevalent crimes committed in Indian Country: sexual abuse, domestic violence, and drug- and alcohol-related crimes.
The Justice Department pointed to the increased rate of prosecutions in Indian Country as being just one of the many accomplishments of the Tribal Law and Order Act.
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