Senate passes Tribal Law and Order Act

By Dirk Lammers
Sioux Falls, South Dakota (AP) June 2010

The U.S. Senate has passed a bill giving American Indian tribes more authority to combat crime on their reservations.

The Tribal Law and Order Act, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, now heads to the House. Thune said he expects the legislation to pass that chamber, too, and go on to be signed by President Barack Obama. The measure provides for the appointment of special U.S. attorneys to ensure violent crimes on reservations are prosecuted, improves training for reservation police, expands the sentencing authority of tribal courts and improves the collection and reporting of Indian crime data.

Thune said the legislation would allow U.S. magistrates to hold trials and other proceedings in Indian Country as opposed to having to take defendants to the nearest federal court.

“That actually was something that was requested by the tribes,” he said Thursday.

The bill also includes language ensuring that if tribal governments and federal courts enter into agreements allowing for such trials, the U.S. Department of Justice is authorized to provide technical and other assistance.

The new legislation is on top of a U.S. Department of Justice effort to dispatch 30 new prosecutors to jurisdictions that serve Indian Country. The new hires represent the department’s first specific increase in Indian Country prosecutors in almost a decade, and they will target violent crime.

One area that has been trying to combat a severe crime problem is the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles the South Dakota-North Dakota border.

In 2008, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had only nine officers to patrol the 2.3 million acre reservation, so only one officer at times was on duty to patrol a land mass about the size of the state of Connecticut.

Residents who testified at two hearings held on Standing Rock made it clear that violence and sexual assault on the reservation had been compounded by the growth of gang activity, Thune said.

To help turn the tide, the U.S. Interior Department recently sent 25 more law officers to Standing Rock as part of a temporary surge that Sens. Thune and Dorgan are hoping to make permanent.

Dorgan said monitoring by the U.S. Park Service is showing that the temporary increase is resulting in hundreds more arrests.

“While I’m pleased to hear that our first step to beef up law enforcement is leading to more arrests and successfully increasing public safety, there is clearly more work to be done,” he said in a statement.

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said the bill strengthens the hand of law enforcement by giving officers the resources they need while meeting the nation’s treaty and trust responsibilities.

Another provision of the Tribal Law and Order Act requires the Department of Justice to report on reservations’ use of community policing, a concept that gained popularity in the inner cities in the early 1980s.

The goal is to create a change in the culture by attacking smaller crimes before larger crimes take hold.

“It starts with broken windows,” Thune said. “If you don’t fix those things and you don’t try to prevent those types of things then the bigger crimes become much pervasive as well, and there’s a lawlessness that starts to permeate these areas.”

The bill also raises the maximum hiring age of Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement officers from 37 to 47 to increase the pool of potential recruits.