Sunday, February 26, 2012

Spatial isolation, spatial disparities in American Indian justice

"Higher Crime, Fewer Charges on Indian Land" is the headline for Timothy Williams's recent story in the New York Times. Here's the lede:
Indian reservations across the United States have grappled for years with chronic rates of crime higher than all but a handful of the nation's most violent crimes. But the Justice Department, which is responsible for prosecuting the most serious crimes on reservations, file charges in only about half of Indian country murder investigations and turns down nearly two-thirds of sexual assault cases, according to federal data.
Under federal law, tribal courts have the authority to prosecute tribal members for crimes committed on reservations, but cannot sentence those convicted to more than three years in prison. As a result, tribes usually seek federal prosecution for serious crimes.
Indeed, some tribal members have sued the federal government for deciding not to prosecute--and for what they allege is shoddy police work.

One part of the story that intrigued me was an explanation that one former tribal judge offered for the federal government's efficacy and engagement. He focused on literal material spatiality, noting that "federal prosecutors typically live, work and try cases hundreds of miles from Indian country."

It sounds a little bit like "out of sight, out of mind." But, as Williams notes, there is also the challenge of limited resources--and competition for which cases are going to garner them.

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