Bill Bolsters Tribal Power To Prosecute Rape Cases

Previous Coverage

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.

Native American women are far more likely to be raped than other women — and tribal officials say many incidents on reservations across the country go unreported and uninvestigated, NPR's Laura Sullivan reported a year ago on All Things Considered.

The Justice Department estimates that 1 in 3 Native American women will be raped in her lifetime, and most victims who do report their assaults describe their attackers as non-Native. Legally, tribal authorities can do little to stop them. Chickasaw Tribal Police Chief Jason O'Neal told NPR in 2007 that "many of the criminals know Indian lands are almost a lawless community that they can do whatever they want."

For the past year, the Senate has held hearings on reservations nationwide on how to stop the assaults. The resulting legislation, called the Tribal Law and Order Act, was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday by Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, who is chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Dorgan's bill has three primary goals. First, it would make it easier for tribal police like O'Neal to arrest non-Indians who commit federal crimes on tribal lands, including sexual assault. Second, it would increase the sentencing power of tribal courts by allowing them to put convicted tribal members behind bars for three years instead of one — and even send them to federal prison. Third, the bill would increase accountability for U.S. attorneys by requiring them to keep a record of every case on tribal lands they decline to prosecute.

"I think now the women finally have a voice," said Georgia Littleshield, director of the Pretty Bird Woman House domestic violence shelter on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in South Dakota.

"I sit with women who cry and are mad because the feds didn't want to pick up the case. This bill, I think, would give women more of a right, that the prosecutor's got to be more accountable for federal jurisdiction on these cases. And he's going to have to be accountable for the cases he doesn't prosecute," Littleshield said.

But others have their doubts about the legislation, including Diane Enos, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Arizona. She says the bill is better than nothing, but it doesn't do enough. With money from their successful gaming casinos, the Pima-Maricopa tribe has been able to hire its own police. But even with extra security for the community, tribal officials still cannot prosecute non-Indian assailants.

"You've got Congress people who are scared stiff of seeing tribes get authority over non-Indians. I'm not sure that they understand why, but it's almost a knee-jerk reaction. If they came, took the time to come here to look at our courts, our police departments and the due process we afford, maybe they would feel a little bit different," Enos says.

The Justice Department is concerned that giving tribes the right to send offenders to federal prisons will cause overcrowding.

Nonetheless, the Senate bill is gaining bipartisan momentum. A companion bill is expected soon in the House.

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