From the Albuquerque Journal
Thursday, October 21, 2010
New Law Broadens Tribal Powers
By Astrid Galvan
Journal Staff Writer
A new law that significantly expands the powers of tribal courts will help fight the most pressing public safety problems on Indian land, federal and tribal officials said at a three-day symposium in Albuquerque.
The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, signed into law by President Barack Obama in July, expands the ability of tribal law enforcement to tackle crimes that would otherwise go unprosecuted, symposium participants said.
It also holds the federal government to a new level of accountability, forcing it to keep and report data pertaining to crimes committed in Indian Country that federal authorities decline to prosecute.
“The impact of the act is significant, but we still have a lot of work to do,” said Wizipan Garriott, a policy adviser for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, who helped draft the legislation.
Garriott and dozens of experts and tribal leaders gathered at the Albuquerque Marriott Pyramid this week to discuss the law.
Garriott said the law is a “significant step forward” for tribal justice, which is often viewed as ineffective because it has minimal powers.
For example, until now tribal courts could only sentence a criminal to a maximum year in jail. When the federal government declines to prosecute violent crimes such as domestic violence and sexual assault, which has been common in the past, tribal courts were burdened with trying a case whose defendant would only face up to a year in jail and a possible $5,000 fine.
Now, tribal courts can sentence someone for up to three years and can tack on more than one sentence. Fines were increased to $15,000. And because those convictions are considered felonies, criminals lose voting and gun rights.
“I see that as a recognition of the inherent sovereignty of tribes to administer justice,” Garriott said.
The law has been embraced by both tribal leaders and members. But there are also those who doubt its effectiveness.
Navajo Nation Public Defender Angela Keahnie-Sanford questioned the fairness of increasing fines, which she said most Indians would not be able to afford.
“That’s just going to be cruel and unusual punishment in Indian Country,” she said.
Other provisions of the law:
• Require the FBI and U.S. Attorneys to share evidence and information with tribal law enforcement when declining to prosecute a crime, so that tribal courts can take over the prosecution.
• Allow tribal courts to prosecute minor crimes they haven’t been able to in the past, such as when a non-American Indian commits a crime on a reservation.
• Authorize tribal police officers who obtain federal deputization to cite, arrest or search both American Indians and non-Indians suspected of breaking a federal law.
• Give tribal police access to federal crime databases they previously had minimal or no access to.
• Reauthorize past acts that provide grants and funding for tribal courts and law enforcement agencies.