Sunday, May 3, 2009

Criminal justice in Indian country complicated by jurisdiction, rural realities

I made the point a few days ago that this NPR story about the Chickasaw had an unexpressed rural angle. Today, another NPR story similarly left the rural-urban difference angle unacknowledged. The story is about crime--in particular, rape--in Indian country and the jurisdictional complications when the perpetrator is non-Indian. The gist of the problem is that, as a practical matter, a jurisdictional void often exists because U.S. federal courts have jurisdiction under these circumstances, but they do not prioritize the cases. Thus the crimes go unpunished, indeed, are not even investigated in many instances. One federal study reports that U.S. attorneys fail to prosecute about three-quarters of the rape cases involving Indian complainants and non-native perpetrators.

But the story is not only about the complexities of jurisdiction. It is also a window into law enforcement challenges in rural contexts. By way of illustration of the paucity of law enforcement in Indian country, the story notes that "the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles North and South Dakota, had five Bureau of Indian Affairs officers to patrol an area the size of Connecticut." It also reports that tribes are increasingly using revenues raised from casino operations to establish and enhance their own criminal justice systems, e.g., police, prosecutors, courts. In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs helps finance such tribal law enforcement efforts, most recently with $85 million in a March, 2009, appropriations bill. (Another $500 million in the February, 2009, stimulus bill went to Indian Health Services, which will pay for, among other things, rape kits). Nevertheless, what tribal law enforcement can accomplish is limited by the jurisdiction accorded them, and the ability of tribal police to do their job is sometimes complicated because of a lack of certainty over where Indian country ends and U.S. territory begins, particularly in rural locales.

This brings me to the principal point of the NPR story--that Congress is considering a law that would permit tribal police to arrest anyone who commits a crime on Indian land. The Tribal Law and Order Act would also give police departments and sheriff's offices grants for cooperating with tribal police and cross-deputizing officers.

Read an earlier related post about jurisdiction and sexual assaults against American Indian women here. Read my article, "Place Matters: Domestic Violence and Rural Difference" here. The latter includes a section on the particular issues confronting American Indian victims of intimate abuse.

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