Northwest Tribes Begin To Try Reservation Crime Cases Under Tougher Laws

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A tribal court on the Umatilla Indian Reservation is one of the first to hand-down a long prison term under new tougher criminal sentencing laws enacted by Congress in 2010.

It used to be that tribes could only sentence a Native American criminal to up to one year of jail time — no matter the crime. Typically the U.S. Justice Department was called in for everything else -– but many cases were dropped.

Now, tribal courts have the power to sentence native criminals who commit crimes on a reservation up to three years per count, for up to nine years.

The Umatilla tribal judge near Pendleton, Oregon, handed down the first such sentence last week. A young Native American man from Pendleton was given 27 months for assault.

“I really believe that crime will decrease when people realize they are going to be held accountable at a level that is appropriate for the offence they commit,” says Brent Leonhard, an attorney with the tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Leonhard says a federal pilot program may pick up the costs of jailing the tribal lawbreaker. If not, the tribe would have to pay for the man’s incarceration in federal prison.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio

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