Attorney General Jeff Sessions, left, and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray. Photo: FBI
Law | National | Politics

Report faults Department of Justice for public safety issues in Indian Country




The Department of Justice isn't doing enough to improve public safety in Indian Country, seven years after the passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act, according a new review.

Tribes and their advocates pushed strongly for the law, which was signed by then-president Barack Obama during a high-profile ceremony in July 2010. Many cited high rates of crime, particularly against women, in explaining why improvements are needed in Indian Country.

With Lisa Marie Ayotte, an advocate from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, at his side, Obama said "it is unconscionable that crime rates in Indian Country are more than twice the national average and up to 20 times the national average on some reservations."

But in a new report, DOJ's Office of the Inspector General found that the prominent level of support for the law was short lived during the Obama administration. While funding for prosecutions in Indian Country increased between 2011 and 2013, it has declined significantly -- by 40 percent -- since then.

Funding peaked in 2013, when DOJ spent $34.6 million to support 207 positions in Indian Country, according to the report, which was released on Thursday. By 2016, funding fell to $19.8 million, enough to support just 114 positions.

Justice OIG on YouTube: Review of the DOJ's Tribal Law Enforcement Efforts Pursuant to the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010

"The department’s prior statements indicate that public safety in Indian Country is a priority," Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who is a holdover from the Obama era, said in a video message accompanying the report. "However, we found that funding and resources for Indian country prosecutions have decreased over time."

Funding for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is responsible for investigating violent crimes in Indian Country, is higher than it was in 2010, according to the report. But levels have been uneven and between 2015 and 2016, it actually dropped below the 2012 level.

Yet the FBI fared much better than the Drug Enforcement Administration, which plays a key role in addressing the opioid epidemic seen on many reservations. The agency has "never received funding specifically for Indian country work," the report stated.

The report does not look at the Bureau of Indian Affairs because it is part of the Department of the Interior, a different federal agency. But funding for BIA law enforcement has been threatened under the new administration of President Donald Trump, and Congress has been unable to pass an appropriations bill that would counteract any cuts.

But the report does fault DOJ for not working more closely with the BIA, with tribal governments and its own agencies, like the FBI and the DEA, on ways to improve public safety on reservations. It points out that the DOJ's Office of Tribal Justice, despite its name, lacks authority to ensure compliance with the 2010 law.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General Podcast on Tribal Law and Order Act

"In the absence of a department-level entity to oversee Indian country efforts, law enforcement activities in Indian country and the implementation of TLOA requirements vary by component," the report stated. "As a result, the department cannot ensure that it is prioritizing its Indian country responsibilities or meeting these important requirements."

Like his predecessor, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the new leader of DOJ, has vowed to make Indian Country a priority. Since taking office in February, he has not announced any new commitments, but he has continued to support two Obama-era initiatives: a program that helps tribes coordinate grants and a program that helps tribes gain access to national criminal databases.

Sessions is also taking advice from R. Trent Shores, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation who serves as the U.S. Attorney for Northern Oklahoma. Shores, who is the only Native American currently serving as a top federal prosecutor, offered the department's general support for tribal safety public legislation at a recent hearing on Capitol Hill.

"Violent crime and substance abuse occurs at higher rates in Indian Country than anywhere else in the United States. This is unacceptable," Shores told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on October 25.

Thanks to the committee's bipartisan focus on public safety, the Senate passed S.772, the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act, to ensure tribes are eligible for DOJ grants they can use to develop AMBER Alert systems on their homelands. The bill awaits action in the House.

Separately, the committee passed S.1870, the Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment Act. The bill, also known as the SURVIVE Act, mandates a $150 million tribal set-aside from the Crime Victims Fund at DOJ.

Current data shows that fewer than 1 percent of the funds flow to Indian Country. The bill has yet to be considered on the Senate floor or in the House.

Additionally, the committee continues to work on S.1953, the Tribal Law and Order Reauthorization and Amendments Act. The bill makes a number of tribal-driven changes to the 2010 law and its requires DOJ, for the first time, to improve data collection on Native victims of human trafficking.

At the October hearing, Shores said the Trump administration supported the need to update the Tribal Law and Order Act but was unable to offer a concrete position on it.

Office of the Inspector General Review of the Department’s Tribal Law Enforcement Efforts Pursuant to the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, Evaluation and Inspections Division Report 18-01:
Full Report | Video | Podcast | Press Release

Related Stories:
Choctaw Nation citizen taking oath of office as top federal prosecutor in Oklahoma (December 12, 2017)
Senate committee approves bill to fund victim services programs in Indian Country (December 7, 2017)
Indian Country public safety bills advance amid silence from Trump administration (December 5, 2017)
Navajo Nation gains access to national criminal data with Obama-era program (November 21, 2017)
Tribal safety measures encounter little resistance from Department of Justice (October 26, 2017)
Sen. Heitkamp introduces bill to address 'epidemic' of missing and murdered Native women (October 5, 2017)
Department of Justice announces Indian Country initiatives after facing criticism (October 3, 2017)
Department of Justice invites more tribes to gain access to criminal databases (August 17, 2017)
Attorney General Sessions vows help for public safety in Indian Country (April 18, 2017)
Donald Trump's Justice pick opposed tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians (January 10, 2017)