The Senate Indian Affairs Committee
was met with resistance on Thursday in its effort to combat high crime rates on reservations.
Sen. Byron Dorgan
Dakota), the chairman of the committee, said the Department of Justice
has repeatedly refused to provide data about the crimes it fails to prosecute. Citing publicly available data, Dorgan said U.S. Attorneys
offices across the nation fail to go after more than 60 percent of cases.
"Unfortunately, some offices have taken an out-of-sight, out-of-mind with regard to our obligation to Indian Country," said Dorgan.
Drew Wrigley, the U.S. Attorney for North Dakota
, disputed suggestions that Indian crime is a low priority for the administration. He said "zero" percent of Indian cases are declined due to lack of resources.
"Our obligation is strong," Wrigley testified. "That commitment is very wide in the department among U.S. Attorneys."
But Wrigley, who was nominated by President Bush, defended the department's decision to withhold data that would explain why cases are declined. He said providing the information would mislead the public and jeopardize criminal investigations.
Other committee members weren't convinced. Sen. Lisa Murkowski
(R-Alaska), the vice chair, said the data will help improve law enforcement in Indian Country because it can shed light on areas of the system that need to be fixed.
"Information needs to be conveyed that there's an inadequacy or a lack of accountability or lack of training," Murkowski said.
Sen. Jon Tester
(D-Montana), who lives near the Rocky Boy's Reservation, said he often hears about crime in Indian Country when he is home. According to government reports, American Indians and Alaska Native are more than twice as likely to be victims of crime, a rate that is even higher on certain reservations.
But Wrigley refused to agree there is a "problem" with the criminal justice system on reservations. "We don't know how to help you," said Tester of the refusal to provide information about declinations.
Dorgan and other senators have introduced a bipartisan bill that would require DOJ to provide data on the declination rate in Indian Country. The provision is part of
, the Tribal Law and Order Act, a comprehensive package of law enforcement reforms.
DOJ does keep information about the cases it declines to prosecute. Through Freedom of Information Act requests, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse
at Syracuse University in New York put together a database that Dorgan cited at the hearing.
But the database doesn't necessarily explain why a certain case was declined. According to Wrigley, the primary reason is lack of jurisdiction -- meaning the alleged offense is not covered by federal law.
As currently written, S.3320 would require to DOJ to provide more details, including the type of crime alleged, the Indian status of the accused and the victim and the reason for declining to prosecute. Other witnesses at the hearing -- including a former federal prosecutor -- testified in support of the reporting provision.
"Declination reports are a common part of doing business," said Tom Heffelfinger
, the former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota. "They are shared with, probably, the elected district attorneys
and they are shard with the referring police department. By doing that, the information that led to the declination is shared with people who are in the position to make change."
Janelle Doughty, the top justice and regulatory official for the Southern Ute Tribe
, praised Troy Eid,
the U.S. Attorney for Colorado
, for his stance on Indian crime. She said he regularly provides information about declinations to tribal leaders.
"In one such case, Mr. Eid's office obtained a conviction in a statutory rape case involving a 13-year-old victim," Doughty testified. "This was a case that the previous U.S. Attorney had declined without any explanation."
Dorgan said he spoke with U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey
this week about the need for declination reports. Mukasey offered the same reasons Wrigley gave for not providing the information has agreed to review the committee's request for the data, Dorgan said.
HEARING to examine Federal declinations to prosecute crimes in Indian Country
(September 18, 2008)
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