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Senate committee to take up 'crisis' on reservations



The Senate Indian Affairs Committee this week will take up a comprehensive proposal aimed at improving law enforcement on reservations.

According to government data, American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer from the highest rates of violent crime in the United States. Native women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence than any other racial or ethnic group.

Citing these concerns, the committee held four hearings and a series of listening sessions to solicit input on a draft discussion bill that was unveiled last November. The result of the process is a new proposal that is being distributed to tribes, states, law enforcement officials and other affected stakeholders.

"These hearings and meetings confirm what many Indian country residents have known for some time: many tribal communities are in the midst of a public safety crisis," Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman the committee, and three other senators wrote on June 12.

The draft discussion bill tackles a wide range of issues that have been raised by tribes. It includes sections on funding, personnel, detention facilities, domestic violence and the Indian Civil Rights Act.

But one issue that isn't in the draft is criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Statistics show that most of the violent crimes against Native women are perpetrated by non-tribal members who aren't subject to the authority of tribal justice systems.

Tribes have long called for a restoration of their criminal jurisdiction over people who commit crimes on reservations. In 1991, Congress reaffirmed tribal jurisdiction over "all" Indians in legislation that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005.

The issue is highly controversial. When he was chairman of the Indian committee from 2005 through the end of 2006, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, told tribes that they should forget about asking Congress for similar legislation affecting non-Indians.

"I don't think you're going to see national legislation on this issue. It's too controversial. It's too emotional. It's a terrible problem," McCain said at the National Congress of American Indians winter session in early 2005.

In his Indian policy, McCain said he has "worked tirelessly to strengthen law enforcement on reservations, including improving tribal courts and detention facilities." He does not address tribal criminal jurisdiction.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois), the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has cited the lack of criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians as one of his concerns. In his Indian policy, he said he will work on jurisdictional problems and one of his advisers said he will support legislation to restore tribal authority.

"There's a jurisdictional gap and Sen. Obama is committed to legislatively addressing that," said Keith Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, on Native America Calling in February.

Despite the lack of a provision addressing tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians, the draft discussion bill encourages tribes, states and local governments to cooperate on jurisdictional issues. It authorizes the Department of Justice to issue grants for joint tribal-state projects.

The draft also creates a new Indian Law and Order Commission, one of whose tasks would be to study and recommend potential changes to criminal jurisdiction statutes. A report would be due within two years after the passage of the act.

Separately, the draft includes a provision to increase tribal authority over "all" Indians. It amends the Indian Civil Rights Act to authorize jail terms of up to three years and fines of up to $15,000.

Currently, tribal courts are limited to sentences of one year and a maximum fine of $5,000. Tribes have supported an increase in punishments.

The draft will be considered a hearing this Thursday. The committee is also holding a business committee meeting in which a subpoena to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to release a report on the conditions of detention facilities might be considered.

Relevant Documents:
Draft Discussion Bill | Concept Paper | Press Release

Committee Notice:
BUSINESS MEETING to consider pending legislative issues, to be followed immediately by a HEARING on a draft bill to address law and order in Indian country. (June 19, 2008)

Related Stories:
Senate Indian Affairs business meeting and hearing (6/13)
Sen. Dorgan plans subpoena over BIA jail report (6/5)
Sen. Dorgan plans bill to address Indian Country crime (11/20)