FLAGSTAFF — A bill giving American Indian tribes more authority to combat crime on their reservations has cleared Congress and is headed to President Barack Obama, who said he looks forward to signing it.
Obama said the Tribal Law and Order Act, which passed the U.S. House Wednesday, is an important step in addressing the "unique public safety challenges" that confront tribal communities.
"The federal government's relationship with tribal governments, its obligations under treaty and law, and our values as a nation require that we do more to improve public safety in tribal communities," Obama said. "And this act will help us achieve that."
The Senate approved the measure in June.
The bill came as a response to what Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said is a crisis situation on Indian reservations, where violent crime continues to devastate communities at rates much higher than the national average.
The measure provides for the appointment of special U.S. attorneys to ensure violent crimes are prosecuted. It also revamps training for reservation police, expands the sentencing authority of tribal courts from one to three years, and improves the collection and reporting of Indian crime data.
"This is going to have a very big impact for tribes across the country," said Dorgan, the bill's author. "I think they'll move quickly to take advantage of the provisions."
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said law enforcement on tribal lands has long been hamstrung by federal restrictions and inadequate resources.
"The Tribal Law and Order Act is a significant step forward for tribal police — officers who serve their communities honorably and deserve the full authority to protect Indian Country just like any other state, county, or city in the nation," Keel said in a statement.
Bernadine Martin, chief prosecutor on the Navajo Nation, said she looks forward to a provision that requires the U.S. Department of Justice to maintain criminal data on cases from Indian Country that U.S. attorneys decline to prosecute, and share evidence from those cases with tribal officials. Some U.S. attorneys already do that.
Knowing which crimes are declined will help tribal prosecutors decide whether they should move forward with tribal charges, which typically carry less stringent punishments than federal charges.
"They have to now tell us what they're taking in and tossing out," Martin said.
The bill also requires that tribal and federal officers serving Indian Country be trained in interviewing victims of sexual assault and collecting evidence at crime scenes. Lack of evidence is among the reasons that federal justice officials have cited in declining to prosecute cases.
The pool of potential recruits for Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement could also see a boost with the bill, which raises the maximum hiring age from 37 to 47. Fewer than 3,000 BIA and tribal police officers patrol more than 56 million acres of tribal lands, said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., a sponsor of the House measure.
On the 2.3 million-acre Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles the South Dakota-North Dakota border, the BIA had only nine patrol officers in 2008. That meant at times, just one officer was on duty to patrol a land mass about the size of Connecticut.
"When you live in those circumstances, it is not a safe place to live," Dorgan said.