WASHINGTON – The Justice Department on Monday ordered prosecutors in 33 states to step up their efforts to combat persistently high violent crime on Indian reservations, particularly offenses against women and children.
Attorney General Eric Holder was to announce the initiative after his deputy, David Ogden, issued a memo to federal prosecutors in those areas instructing them to do more to fight tribal crime – a problem the Justice Department has long been accused of ignoring.
Ogden’s memo also said 47 new prosecutors and FBI personnel will be assigned to handle such crimes.
On tribal lands, federal officials are usually responsible for prosecuting serious crimes. While the nationwide crime rate continues to fall, statistics show American Indians are the victims of violent crime at more than twice the national rate – and some tribes have murder rates against women 10 times greater than the national average.
Often, law enforcement on reservations is stretched thin across wide geographic areas.
Still, little is known about what exactly is happening on reservations or how the incidents are handled. Data has been sparse for decades and crime surveys rarely separate out tribal statistics.
Ogden wrote in the memo that the new demands being placed on prosecutors will help make reservations safer “and turn back the unacceptable tide of domestic and sexual violence there.”
The issue of jurisdiction has also long been an obstacle. The Justice Department shares responsibility for Indian crime with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is part of the Interior Department, and with state and tribal governments. Jurisdiction over a crime can vary by state, by the severity of the crime and by whether the victim and suspect are Indian or non-Indian.
While the Bureau of Indian Affairs polices reservations, the Justice Department’s role involves investigating and prosecuting crimes that fall under federal jurisdiction and administering grant programs designed to reduce crime on reservations.
Democrats in Congress criticized the Bush administration for not doing more to address the problem and for declining to prosecute many crimes in Indian country. While campaigning on Indian reservations last year during the Democratic primary, Barack Obama promised more protections for tribes, including efforts to improve law enforcement.
Separately, Justice Department officials gathered in Washington to discuss the dangers of stalking nationwide. The most recent figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found 3.4 million people are stalked every year.