AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Navajo Nation is the largest Indian reservation in the country. It stretches through parts of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. The geography is so vast that patrolling the nation is difficult for authorities, making it difficult to keep its population safe. In fact, the Navajo Nation has become one of the most violent reservations in the country.
Laura Morales of member station KJZZ reports.
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LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Tuba City Jail supervisor Robbin Preston shows off his new state-of-the-art building on the Navajo Nation, about an hour north of Flagstaff.
OFFICER ROBBIN PRESTON: This is our sally port. So whenever police officers are bringing inmates in they'll notify our central at the gate and then we will bring them through here.
MORALES: Preston says up until recently Tuba City had an Old West-style jail with just 10 beds in a building that was falling apart. The jail was so full, in fact, it could only hold inmates for eight hours. The recidivism rate was so high, Preston couldn't keep track of it.
PRESTON: We have inmates who know how to book themselves. If I have a new officer on the floor who's forgot to do a process, I have inmates who'll say, oh, you forgot to do this.
MORALES: The new jail has 136 beds but the tribe still needs more jail space and it's building others. But that's only part of the problem. The tribe lacks the resources to fight crime. Only 300 Navajo police officers patrol an area the size of West Virginia. They were overwhelmed one day last October when they got a string of four unrelated homicide calls.
McDonald Rominger, who heads the Northern Arizona FBI office, sent his investigators to help. But even Rominger says he needs more manpower to cover the reservation, which reaches from Arizona into both Utah and New Mexico.
MCDONALD ROMINGER: It's not uncommon for FBI agents or Navajo CIs to drive, you know, six, 700 miles in one day, you know, just trying to accomplish something that would take a detective in San Francisco an hour to accomplish.
MORALES: The U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona has 19 lawyers working only on Indian Country cases. Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Schneider says no other office in the nation has that many people working solely on reservation cases.
PAT SCHNEIDER: It's never enough. I'm always amazed at the volume of cases and we could always do more.
MORALES: But according to a 2010 Government Accountability Study, his office declined to prosecute half of Indian Country cases.
SCHNEIDER: And, unfortunately, not every single one of these incidents can we prove all the time and that's frustrating. We wish that every single one we could.
DYANNE GREER: Why is it important to know who did it?
MORALES: The U.S. Attorney's Office wants to increase the number of prosecutions through workshops like this one on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations. Assistant U.S. Attorney Dyanne Greer is training tribal police and nurses.
GREER: You don't want to send this person home to the same individual who beat the crap out of her or who raped her.
MORALES: Evidence critical to an investigation is often lost because it wasn't collected or preserved properly. And Greer explains, if her office can prosecute the case, the feds can impose strict sentences. The maximum tribal court sentence on the Navajo Nation is only one year, even for violent crimes. And that was also the case until recently on the Hopi Reservation.
Jill Engel is the Hopi Tribe's chief prosecutor. She points to a recent tribal court case as an example of why things need to change. A 62-year-old Hopi medicine man assaulted and raped a patient last year. The U.S. Attorney in Flagstaff couldn't prosecute the case because he didn't have sufficient evidence. So the feds sent the case back to tribal court.
JILL ENGLE: He was charged with - sexual imposition is what the old statute was called, which is basically unlawful carnal knowledge of a woman.
MORALES: The tribal court sentenced him to three years in jail, one year for each count. By way of comparison, off reservation the average rape sentence is 14 years for each count, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Engel and several Hopi officials have worked for years to change the tribe's out-of-date criminal code. And they've finally done it.
Under the new code, the tribal court could now sentence the medicine man to a total of nine years. And Engel says tribal courts have significant advantages over federal courts outside the reservation.
ENGLE: We live here. We engage the community here. We have an understanding of the crimes and the crime scenes and we have Hopi juries here. And it gives us an advantage in that there are some cases that I believe the tribal courts can more effectively prosecute.
MORALES: Engel hopes having the authority to impose stricter sentences means more victims will come forward with the confidence that justice will be served.
For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.
CORNISH: This story came to us from the public radio collaboration Fronteras, reporting on the Southwest.
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