Lawmakers Move To Curb Rape On Native Lands

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In an award-winning series, NPR's Laura Sullivan reported on the prevalence of rape on tribal lands and the difficulty in prosecuting sexual assault cases.

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The federal government has recently announced plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to improve medical clinics, buy more rape kits and bolster the police response to what authorities say is an epidemic of rapes on Indian land.

The February stimulus bill injected $500 million into Indian Health Services, the agency that handles most medical needs for Native Americans, while the appropriations bill that passed in March is also adding funds. The March bill increases the budget for the Bureau of Indian Affairs by $85 million to provide additional law enforcement on reservations.

Meanwhile, Congress is attempting to strengthen the authority of tribal police with a new bill that would grant Native American tribes greater police powers.

Advocates say it would be a sea change for tribes, which are largely dependent on the federal government when it comes to law enforcement on their lands.

Two years ago, the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles North and South Dakota, had five Bureau of Indian Affairs officers to patrol an area the size of Connecticut. Officials there, and on many reservations nationwide, described a rampant problem of rape where hundreds of cases were going unreported, uninvestigated and unprosecuted.

According to the Justice Department, 1 in 3 Native American women will be raped in her lifetime. Tribal leaders say predators believe Native American land is almost a free-for-all, where no law enforcement can touch them.

In many ways, those offenders may be right. Few cases of sexual assault in Indian country make it to the courthouse. In the 1978 case Oliphant vs. Suquamish, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only federal prosecutors can prosecute crimes on Indian land. But those federal prosecutors are also responsible for terrorism cases, white-collar crime and drug racketeering. Rape cases are often shuffled aside. Many officials told NPR that cases involving the rape of a single woman on a reservation just don't hold the kind of prominence those other cases do.

In recent years, thanks largely to casino money, many tribes have started their own police forces, hired tribal prosecutors and built their own courtrooms and jails. But the 1978 ruling says Native American police and prosecutors can only prosecute Native Americans. They can't arrest and charge people from outside the reservation, which is especially problematic.

According to the Justice Department, 80 percent of the assailants in rape cases on the reservations were non-native men. Tribal police say the law forbids them from arresting those offenders, no matter how good their evidence is. But they say when they turn the cases over to federal prosecutors, nothing happens. One federal report found U.S. attorneys decline to prosecute 75 percent of Indian rape cases every year.

Tribal law enforcement is also hamstrung because even when they have an American Indian offender, the law says they can't prosecute felonies like rape and they can only imprison an offender for up to one year.

This jurisdictional maze could change though, if a new bill before Congress passes. A bipartisan group of senators has introduced the Tribal Law and Order Act, which would allow tribal police to arrest anyone who commits a crime on Indian land, regardless of the offender's race. The law also calls for better tracking of which cases the U.S. Attorney's office declines and why. It would give local police and sheriff's offices grants if they cooperate with tribal police and cross-deputize their officers.

If the bill passes, tribal officials say, their police will have the same authority state and local officers have across the country, and they may be able to put a dent in the number of sexual assault cases they see every day.

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