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Tribes, feds meet to discuss crime law

Wed., Sept. 22, 2010

Act intended to reduce violence on reservations

It will take more than an act of Congress to end the scourge of reservation crime in Indian country, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians was told Tuesday.

“We cannot prosecute our way out of criminal activity on the reservation,” said James A. McDevitt, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington.

It will take a coordinated effort of the individual tribes and federal agencies to attack the roots of crime: unemployment, lack of education and substance abuse.

McDevitt and Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Rice spoke during a panel discussion on the Tribal Law and Order Act at Northern Quest Casino, where about 500 tribal delegates from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Northern California and southeastern Alaska are holding their annual conference this week.

The act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in July, attempts to hold federal agencies accountable for investigating and prosecuting criminals on reservations, where the rate of violent crime is 2  1/2 times the national average and as high as 20 times the national average on some reservations.

Particularly alarming is the statistic that 1 in 3 American Indian or Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes – crimes that often have gone unprosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department.

The Tribal Law and Order Act requires federal prosecutors to collect data on crimes they have declined to prosecute in Indian country and to share evidence with tribal courts.

It authorizes the deputization of special assistant U.S. attorneys to prosecute reservation crime in federal court and tribal and state police to enforce federal laws on tribal lands.

The law also authorizes tribal courts to sentence offenders to three years in prison, up from one year, and increases the maximum fine from $5,000 to $15,000.

But as Rice pointed out, the law also requires a commitment on the part of tribes to adequately train judges and attorneys as well as maintain public records of court proceedings.

Much work remains to be done to fully implement the new law, said Rhonda Harjo, deputy chief counsel for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Tribal and federal officials will have to find a way to incarcerate offenders after the first 100, who will be accepted by the federal Bureau of Prisons under a pilot program.

Crime victims and witnesses must be protected from retaliation by gangs or relatives of offenders, Harjo said.

Other panel members also stressed that Congress must be persuaded to appropriate law enforcement and criminal justice funding for tribes if the spirit of the Tribal Law and Order Act is to be made a reality on the reservation.

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