The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Tribal Law and Order Act, which could bring greater local control to tribal law enforcement agencies and improve communication among agencies providing for public safety on reservations.
The House voted 326 to 92 to approve the bill, which was passed with the Indian Arts and Crafts Amendments Act. The bill now goes to President Barack Obama.
The Tribal Law and Order Act, sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., passed the Senate in June. The bill came as a response to what Dorgan said is a crisis situation on Indian reservations, where violent crime continues to devastate communities at rates much higher than the national average.
One of the most notable things the act would do if signed into law is enable tribal courts to sentence people to up to three years in prison. Currently, tribal courts can issue one-year sentences.
Jim Cerny, a public defender for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, said the sentencing provision in the act would allow more crimes to be tried in tribal court, giving more local control to tribes.
“It brings more sovereignty to a tribe,” he said.
Tribal courts and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction over several felonies classified in the Major Crimes Act, including murders and rapes, that occur on reservations. If federal prosecutors decline prosecution in cases that fall under the Major Crimes Act, tribal officials don’t always receive the information compiled in investigations by federal agencies, making it difficult to prosecute the crimes in tribal court.
The Tribal Law and Order Act, if signed by the president, would require the Department of Justice to file declination reports to tribal justice officials to coordinate the prosecution of crimes on reservations.
Grant Walker, chief prosecutor for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, said declinations are still an issue in North Dakota and South Dakota, though there is more communication now than in the past among the entities.
“It’s an ongoing process,” he said. The act also would provide resources to enhance cooperation among tribal, state and federal agencies, authorize tribal police to make arrests for all crimes committed on reservations, provide tribal police more access to national criminal history databases, improve collection of reservation crime data and increase resources for dealing with domestic and sexual violence.
Fewer than 3,000 BIA and tribal police officers patrol more than 56 million acres of tribal lands, said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., a sponsor of the House measure.
On the 2.3 million-acre Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles the South Dakota-North Dakota border, the BIA had only nine patrol officers in 2008. That meant at times, just one officer was on duty to patrol a land mass about the size of Connecticut.
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, lauded the measure, saying law enforcement on tribal lands has long been hamstrung by federal restrictions and inadequate resources.
“The Tribal Law and Order Act is a significant step forward for tribal police — officers who serve their communities honorably and deserve the full authority to protect Indian Country just like any other state, county or city in the nation,” Keel said in a statement.
(Reach reporter Jenny Michael at 250-8225 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this story.)