A high-level Justice Department official pushed Thursday for tribal courts to have more power in prosecuting non-Indians in domestic violence cases, saying the lack of authority has meant many serious crimes have gone unprosecuted.
Although tribal judges can now impose tougher sentences in such cases under a law passed last year, the courts still have no authority to prosecute domestic violence offenders who are not members of tribes, associate attorney general Tom Perrelli told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, has sponsored legislation that would increase tribes' authority to deal with violence against Native American women. A 1978 Supreme Court ruling, known as Oliphant, stripped tribal courts' of jurisdiction over non-Indians, which some blame for increased crime and violence on reservations.
"Tribal leaders, police officers and prosecutors tell us of an all-too-familiar pattern of escalating violence that goes unaddressed, with beating after beating, each more severe than the last, ultimately leading to death or severe physical injury," Perrelli said. "Something must be done to stop the cycle of violence."
The inability to prosecute non-Indians often leads to tribal law officers mistakenly believing they can't make an arrest when responding to a domestic abuse case involving non-Indians, which "has left many serious acts of domestic violence and dating violence unprosecuted and unpunished," Perrelli said.
Congress gave tribal courts the power to levy sentences of up to three years in prison against American Indians for each domestic violence offense in the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010. Before the law was passed, tribal courts could only sentence an abuser to a year in prison.
But the tribal courts still have little power when it comes to non-Indians, even when that abuser is married to a tribal member, Perrelli said.
According to a National Institute of Justice study, one third of Native American women will be raped during their lifetimes, Perrelli said. An analysis of death certificates by the institute also found that on some reservations Native American women are murdered at a rate of more than 10 times the national average, he said.
Among other things, Akaka's legislation would make clear that Congress intended when it passed the Violence Against Women Act of 2000 to give tribal courts authority to issue and enforce protection orders for domestic violence victims, even if they involve non-Indians.
It also would allow courts to impose sentences that gradually increase the punishments for repeat offenders who assault and injure a spouse, partner or date.
The legislation also would provide grants for assisting Native American women who are victims of domestic violence and fund research to gather more data on domestic and sexual violence against women.
Suzanne Koepplinger, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, said the Justice Department estimates that 70 percent of sexual assaults against Native American women go unreported. None of the women and girls ages 11 to 20 who participated in a program run by her organization had reported their assaults to law enforcement, Koepplinger said.
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