Tribal leaders said Tuesday a new federal law designed to give them more authority to combat crime on their reservations will also give the nation a more accurate picture of how murder, rape and other violent crimes are pervading American Indian communities.
About 150 judges, law enforcement officials and tribal leaders gathered in Albuquerque for a national symposium on the Tribal Law and Order Act, signed by President Obama in July.
The new law aims to make federal law enforcement agencies more accountable by having them collect data on crimes committed in Indian Country, and by requiring the U.S. Department of Justice to maintain criminal data on cases that U.S. attorneys decline to prosecute. Some say federal officials decline to prosecute more than 50 percent of violent crimes on reservations.
"Obviously, information is one of the most important issues in Indian Country, and having access to information is how we fight crime," said Kevin Washburn, dean of the University of New Mexico law school.
Washburn, who worked on the legislation, described the act as the first significant congressional effort aimed at helping tribal governments improve their public safety and criminal justice systems.
The act was spurred by what supporters have called a crisis on Indian reservations, where violent crime continues to devastate communities at rates higher than the national average.
Aside from improving the collection and reporting of crime data, the measure provides for the appointment of special U.S. attorneys to ensure violent crimes in tribal communities are prosecuted. It also revamps training for reservation police, expands tribal courts' sentencing authority from one to three years, and addresses some jurisdictional issues.
In addition, the new law requires that tribal and federal officers serving Indian Country be trained in interviewing victims of sexual assault and collecting evidence at crime scenes. Lack of evidence is among the reasons federal officials have cited in declining to prosecute cases.
Christopher Chaney, deputy director of the Justice Department's Office of Tribal Justice, said the idea is to make sure all U.S. attorneys work with tribal prosecutors to ensure "the ball isn't dropped and cases don't fall through the cracks."
Those at the symposium acknowledged that the act _ developed over years of listening sessions and congressional hearings _ is just a first step toward improving the justice system for Indians.
Federal officials couldn't answer some questions about how the act will be implemented, including whether agencies will need to adopt more regulations and if funding will be available for more probation officers and prevention programs in Indian communities.
"It's like putting a meal in front of a hungry person and saying, 'You can't eat.' We've got this great meal in front of us that you're offering, when do I start to eat? When is the rubber going to hit the road?" asked Anthony Brandenburg, chief judge of the Intertribal Court of Southern California.
Officials said some of the provisions depend on tribes updating their criminal codes and coming up with their own standards.
"Now is not the time to wait," said John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians.
"There's a lot of work tribes can do right now to implement these things without waiting for the federal government to tell you how to do it."