Tribal Law and Order Act

By Libby Casey

A new law aimed at improving justice and safety for Alaska Natives and Native Americans is awaiting President Obama’s signature.  The Tribal Law and Order Act won bi-partisan support, and passed the U-S House Wednesday.

The President says he will sign it, and in a written statement called it “an important step” to help the federal government better address public safety challenges confronting tribal communities.

It mostly relates to Reservation lands and Indian Country outside Alaska by clearing up jurisdictional confusion, boosting tribal governments’ enforcement power, and improving things from tribal courts to collection of crime data.

But Senator Lisa Murkowski, who sits on the Indian Affairs Committee, says the bill also helps Alaska:

It is a small slice but it is important for us.  I think two issues rise to the top, first is the assistance with the VPSO positions.

It allows the state and tribal non-profits that employ V-P-S-O’s, or Village Public Safety Officers, to apply for COPS grants, which are Community Oriented Policing grants, and other types of federal monies.  Currently the V-P-S-O jobs are only funded through the state or congressional earmarks.

It also lets the V-P-S-Os to train at the Indian Policy Academy in New Mexico:

One of the areas we know we need a little more help with is that of training our V-P-S-O’s, and this would allow them participation in that.

Murkowski says one of the big problems with prosecuting serious sexual assault crimes, both in Alaska and on reservations, is the inability to collect and process forensic evidence.  The bill calls for the research wing of Congress to evaluate the Indian Health Service facilities, and how evidence is dealt with.  Murkowski says that’s a basic first step toward protecting women:

You have people in communities who give up before the process even starts.  They say I’m not going to press charges because I know nothing will come of it.  And the cycle continues and it mounts.

Murkowski admits it may be frustrating to hear about a study rather than fast action.

But I think it is important to understand the extent of problem, and how that is contributing to ever increasing levels of domestic violence and sexual assault in a state like ours.  When you’re armed with the statistics and the data, it makes arguing for the resources just a little bit easier.

Despite these Alaskan items in the Tribal Law and Order Act, one of the biggest possible scores was stripped out of the bill this summer.  It would have called for a 50 million dollar pilot project to allow Alaska tribes to create cooperative partnerships with the state and the feds.  The project would have enhanced the authority of tribal courts to locally address sexual assault, domestic violence, and drug and alcohol related crimes.

But one of Murkowski’s Republican colleagues, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, held up the entire national bill until the Alaska authorization was yanked out.  He called it an “earmark,” but Murkowski and others disagreed.

I don’t think it was an Alaska earmark.  It was a provision custom-tailored to some of the unique geographic challenges that law enforcement is faced with in Alaska.  You know our situation in the state is different.  Unlike the lower 48, the BIA police force doesn’t patrol AK native lands.  So there’s some distinctions there.

In the end the provision had to get pulled – or the whole bill would’ve sat on the shelf.  Murkowski says she’ll look for other ways to advance the demonstration project.

The director of the State of Alaska’s Washington D-C office, John Katz, says it was important to the state that while Alaska tribes were included in the bill’s sweep, they were not given increased criminal jurisdiction as a bi-product.

Most of Alaska’s tribes are not considered part of “Indian Country,” and so don’t have the same jurisdictional oversight.  The state got on board once that was acknowledged in the bill.

The senate bill includes a disclaimer that we supported, that we think makes it clear that there’s no expansion of Indian country or tribal jurisdiction beyond Indian country in Alaska.

Katz says while the Tribal Law and Order Act has more of an impact on Lower ’48 Reservations, it does hold meaning for Alaska:

I do believe it’s significant Alaska tribes can gain access to funds for domestic violence, and for the V-P-S-O program.  And we’d like to work with them to secure those funds as the bill’s further implemented.

The Bill about to be signed into law doesn’t guarantee funding for the programs it authorizes.  Alaska’s Congressional delegation – and the state – say they’ll push to get money actually dedicated to the programs.  All three members of Alaska’s delegation voted for the Tribal Law and Order Act, despite their party differences.

The Act was inspired in large part by A 2007 Amnesty International report called “Maze of Injustice,” which documented the disproportionally high rate at which Native women are victims of sexual violence, and the federal government’s failure to prevent and prosecute the crimes.

The White House pointed out this week that one in three Native women will be the victim of rape in her lifetime.


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