Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) serves as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Photo: SCIA

Senate committee approves bill to fund victim services programs in Indian Country

A bill to provide victim services funding directly to tribes for the first time is making its way through Congress.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved S.1870, the Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment Act, at a business meeting on Wednesday. The bill, also known as the SURVIVE Act, enjoys bipartisan support.

“The grant program created by the SURVIVE Act will improve public safety and strengthen victim services in Indian Country,” Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the sponsor of S.1870 and the chairman of the committee, said in a press release. “Tribal communities experience some of the highest victimization rates in the country, with little to no resources to assist victims."

During the business meeting, Hoeven noted that tribes must go through states to tap into the Crime Victims Fund at the Department of Justice. As a result, few of the dollars go to Indian Country -- less than 1 percent of all grants, according to current data.

If enacted into law, the SURVIVE Act changes the situation. It mandates a 5 percent set-aside for victim services in Indian Country, amounting to $150 million a year.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Business Meeting December 6, 2017

"There's just so much we can do with this kind of money," Carmen O'Leary, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who serves as the director of the Native Women's Society of the Great Plains, said during an October 25 hearing on the measure. "We can create that safe space, we can provide more counseling, we will have burial help."

The committee's action means S.1870, which was the sole item on the agenda for the business meeting, can be considered by the Senate. The chamber typically passes Indian bills by unanimous consent, due to their non-controversial nature.

There is no companion version in the House at this point, though the chamber could always take up S.1870 as the legislative process moves forward.

The Trump administration had not yet developed an official position on the bill when it was considered at the October hearing though R. Trent Shores, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation who serves as the U.S. Attorney for Northern Oklahoma, offered general support for the goals of S.1870.

"There are not enough resources to cover all of the needs for law enforcement and victim service providers in Indian Country," said Shores, who was confirmed to his high-level post in September and is one of the few tribal citizens to become a U.S. Attorney.

According to DOJ statistics, Native Americans suffer from the highest rate of victimization in the United States. Native women, in particular, are more likely to experience violent crime, most often at the hands of non-Native perpetrators.

Since the start of the 115th Congress, lawmakers in the Senate and the House have passed a slew of Indian bills. But only one -- H.R.228, the Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Consolidation Act -- has cleared both chambers.

The bill, which makes improvements to an program that helps tribes improve economic and employment opportunities, is slated to become the first stand-alone Indian bill signed into law by President Donald Trump. It was officially presented to the White House on Wednesday.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Business Meeting to Consider S. 1870 (December 6, 2017)

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