Bill Bolsters Tribal Power To Prosecute Rape 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. Senate legislation introduced Wednesday would make it easier to prosecute those who commit sexual assaults on tribal land.
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Bill Bolsters Tribal Power To Prosecute Rape Cases

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Bill Bolsters Tribal Power To Prosecute Rape Cases

Bill Bolsters Tribal Power To Prosecute Rape Cases

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We have a report now on legislation that was sparked by a story we reported a year ago. NPR's Laura Sullivan investigated the large number of rapes on tribal lands and reservations. One in three Native American women experiences rape in her lifetime. A majority of those committing the assaults are non-Native men.

In our story last year, Jason O'Neal of the Chickasaw Tribe explained that tribal law enforcement has little power to stop the rapes.

Mr. JASON O'NEAL (Chief, Chickasaw Lighthorse Police Department): Many of the criminals know Indian lands are almost a lawless community that they can do whatever they want.

SIEGEL: Well, that could change if a bill introduced today in the Senate passes. As NPR's Jenny Gold reports.

JENNY GOLD: The Senate has been holding hearings for a year now on reservations across the country to ask Native communities how to address the problem. The result: the Tribal Law and Order Act. It was introduced by Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. He's chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Dorgan says the U.S. needs to live up to its promises to Native Americans.

Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, North Dakota; Chairman, Indian Affairs Committee): And among those promises were the trust responsibilities for health care, housing, education, law enforcement. And we have not nearly kept the promise.

GOLD: Dorgan's bill would do three things. First, it would make it easier for tribal police like Jason O'Neal to arrest non-Indians who commit federal crimes on tribal lands - that includes sexual assault. Second, the bill would give tribal courts more sentencing power. They could put convicted criminals in jail for three years instead of just one — and even send them to a federal prison. And third, U.S. attorneys would have to keep a tally of every case on tribal lands they decline to prosecute. That means they could be held accountable for not prosecuting sexual assaults.

Ms. GEORGIA LITTLESHIELD (Director, Pretty Bird Woman House): I think now the women finally have a voice.

GOLD: Georgia Littleshield is the director of the Pretty Bird Woman House, a domestic violence shelter on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. She says this bill would make a real difference.

Ms. LITTLESHIELD: I sit with women who cry and are mad because the feds didn't want to pick up the case. This bill, I think, it would give women more of a right. 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.

GOLD: But others have their doubts.

Ms. DIANE ENOS (President, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community): Well, it's better than nothing, to be sure, but it's not everything we want.

GOLD: Diane Enos is president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Arizona. With money from their successful gaming casinos, the Pima-Maricopa have been able to hire its own police. But even with extra security for their community, they still can't prosecute non-Indian assailants.

Ms. ENOS: Because you have some Congress people that are just 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, I think maybe they'd feel a little bit different.

GOLD: The Justice Department also has some issues with the bill. One major concern: that giving tribes the right to send offenders to federal prisons will cause overcrowding. But the bill is gaining momentum. It has bipartisan support and at least 10 co-sponsors. A companion bill is expected soon in the House.

Jenny Gold, NPR News, Washington.

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