Law, Order On The 'Rez'
- Less than 3,000 tribal and federal law enforcement officers patrol more than 56 million acres
- Law enforcement officers respond to distress calls without backup
- The majority of tribal detention facilities are in disrepair
- Tribal courts have been historically underfunded
- Sentencing authority is limited to not more than one year of imprisonment
- A significant percentage of cases are not prosecuted
- Jurisdictional problems have a negative impact
- The violent crime rate in Indian Country is nearly twice the national average
Hearing Aims At Law, Order On The 'Rez'
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK-- The Senate Indian Affairs Committee met Thursday in Washington to hear testimony on draft legislation to address law and order in Indian Country.
Despite the jail crisis confronting the Navajo Nation, it was not among the list of witnesses.
The proposed “Tribal Justice Improvement Act of 2008” is designed to clarify the responsibilities of federal, state, tribal and local governments with respect to crimes committed in Indian Country.
Among the goals are to reduce the prevalence of violent crime, combat violence against Native women, address and prevent drug trafficking, and reduce the rates of alcohol and drug addiction.
Patrick Ragsdale, director of the office of Justice Services for the Bureau of Indian Affairs said current federal law provides that offenders may be sentenced to up to one year in jail and up to a $5,000 fine for each offense.
However, there is limited detention space on or near most Indian communities. There are also limited funds to contract for detention bed space in non-tribal or non-BIA facilities.
Navajo Department of Corrections Director Delores Greyeyes recently told the Public Safety Committee that the Nation now has only 56 beds available for all of the reservation's inmate population.
The Navajo is asking Congress for $28 million in FY 2009 for Bureau of Indian Affairs public safety construction and to direct BIA to allocate a fair portion of the funds to tribally owned 638-contracted facilities.
Under a BIA 638 contract, the Nation owns and operates six adult detention facilities in Window Rock, Chinle, Kayenta, Dilkon, Shiprock and Crownpoint. However, three are only temporary holding facilities.
“Crime rates on most reservations are unacceptably high,” Ragsdale said
“Indian Country law enforcement provides services to a population that is predominantly under the age of 25 and experiences high unemployment rates, and lacks municipal infrastructure.”
Joe A. Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said, “At every meeting we have held on this topic the biggest message from tribal leaders is the need for more funding for law enforcement.
“The Bureau of Indian Affairs has documented a $200 million unmet need to bring reservation policing up to the same levels found in other rural communities.
“According to BIA testimony, tribal detention facilities are grossly overcrowded, in deplorable condition, and staffed at only 50 percent.”
There is a need to streamline funding available through the Department of Justice, Department of Interior, and Department of Health and Human Services, Garcia said.
“Under this ad hoc system, tribal law enforcement will receive vehicles, but no maintenance. They will get a detention facility, but no staff. They will receive radios, but no central dispatch.
“The system doesn’t make sense. We believe that tribal public safety funding should be streamlined into a single funding vehicle that would be negotiated on an annual basis and made more flexible to meet local needs.”
Recent analysis indicates that BIA law enforcement needs 1,153 officers but has only 358. Tribal law enforcement needs 3,256 officers but has only 2,197, he said.
Section 407 of the bill is particularly important to support the development of the Juvenile Justice programs in Indian Country, according to Garcia.
“There is a growing consensus among both tribal leaders and national justice system analysts that non-violent juvenile offenders should rarely be placed in detention. They need to stay in school and get more monitoring and mentorship.
“Our goal is not to put more Indians in jail and create more criminals, but to rehabilitate offenders so they can play a productive role in our communities.”
Walter Lamar, a former FBI Special Agent and past deputy director of the BIA law enforcement program said the proposed bill is a first step in addressing a very complex issue.
The “Findings” section “clearly encapsulates the devastating issues facing Indian Country that have been documented in report after report.”
The section also should mention the need for prisoner transport services, he said. “With the number of jail closures police officers are taken out of service for extended periods to transport prisoners hundreds of miles to and from jail facilities.”
Recent history has proven that new detention facilities can be constructed, Lamar added, “however the issue then reverts to an inability to open the facilities for lack of funding for recruitment, hiring, and training of new staff.
“Provisions must be in place to ensure appropriate funding is available to staff planned detention construction.”
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