Late Breaking News
Proposed Law Allows Tribal Courts to Prosecute Non Indians Seeks End to Assault Epidemic
WASHINGTON — Congress is considering legislation to strengthen the ability of tribal law-enforcement agencies to address the epidemic of sexual assaults and domestic violence against women in their communities.
According to the Department of Justice, a nationwide survey shows that about one-third of all American Indian women will be raped in their lifetime, and another regional survey by the University of Oklahoma showed that nearly three out of five Native American women had been assaulted by their spouses or intimate partners.
Last month, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved Senate Bill 1763, paving the way for its consideration by the full Senate. Currently, tribal courts have no authority to prosecute a non-Indian. In addition to giving tribal courts that authority, the bill clarifies that tribal courts have full civil jurisdiction to issue and enforce certain protection orders involving anyone, Indian or non-Indian.
In 2010, President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act which strengthened tribal law enforcement and the ability to prosecute and fight crime more effectively, but some advocates say it did not go far enough.
The Department of Justice supports such legislation as violence against women has, in fact, reached “epidemic rates,” Tom Perrelli, Department of Justice associate attorney, testified before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in November.
“Tribal leaders, police officers and prosecutors tell us of an all-too-familiar pattern of escalating violence that goes unaddressed with beating after beating, each more severe than the last, ultimately leading to death or severe physical injury,” he testified.
Challenges in Protecting Women
The high rates of sexual assaults and domestic violence against women have alarmed American Indian community leaders, but one of the major challenges in addressing the problem has been in prosecuting perpetrators of these crimes. Until recently, tribal law limited sentences of Indian offenders to one year in prison, no matter the seriousness of the offense.
Last year, legislation was enacted to allow tribal courts to sentence Indian offenders for as long as three years per offense. However, tribal courts still lacked authority to prosecute a non-Indian, even if he or she lives on the reservation and is married to a tribal member, Perrelli explained at that hearing.
“Tribal police officers who respond to a domestic-violence call, only to discover that the accused is non-Indian and therefore outside the tribe’s criminal jurisdiction, often mistakenly believe they cannot even make an arrest,” Perrelli said.
The new legislation to address the problem is strongly supported by advocates for women’s rights and safety.
Suzanne Koepplinger, executive director of Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, said at the Senate hearing that she supported the legislation and that rates of sexual assaults are higher than data show. She spoke about the injuries her group has seen in young women and how those crimes go unreported.
“One of the programs serving young Native girls who are at high risk of sexual violence is our Oskinigiikwe (young woman in the Ojibwe language) Program. … Recent evaluation of this program for 11- to 20-year-old Native girls shows 31% of girls coming into the program had a head injury resulting from assault, nearly a quarter of girls had diagnosed mental illness and were homeless upon intake,” she said. “None of the girls had reported their assaults.”
Organizations such as Amnesty International also say they support the legislative change.
"The SAVE Native Women Act will continue critical efforts to begin restoring to tribal governments the authority to protect women in their own communities from violent crime and hold perpetrators accountable,” said Curt Goering, chief operating officer of Amnesty International USA, in a written statement.
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