By Michael W. Savage
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2010; A21
A measure designed to ease stubbornly high rates of violent crime, including rape and sexual assault, within Indian reservations will be signed into law by President Obama on Thursday.
Advocates of the Tribal Law and Order Act, which took three years to put together and passed the Senate last week, say it will ensure that more crimes, including murders and serious assaults, are reported and prosecuted amid worries that many cases go unpunished.
The measure gives tribal courts tougher sentencing powers and sets stricter rules to gather and collect more data on crimes. Special U.S. prosecutors will be appointed to tackle what advocates of the law describe as an epidemic of violence.
The president is due to sign the bill into law during a ceremony at the White House on Thursday afternoon.
Supporters said the current congressional session was the most active in decades in improving conditions for Indian reservations. Earlier this year, Obama signed a law that boosted health-care provisions for Indian communities.
The reservations overall have violent-crime rates of more than twice the national average, according to a congressional investigation.
Some individual reservations have even higher levels of violence. The Standing Rock Sioux reservation, which straddles the border of North and South Dakota, had a violent-crime rate of more than eight times the national average in 2008.
Despite its problems, only nine police officers patrolled the 2.3 million-acre reservation in that year, according to Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and sponsor of the law enforcement legislation.
On a reservation the size of Connecticut, Dorgan said in an interview, that means police might not be able to respond to a crime until hours later or even the next day. "That's not law enforcement."
"I think that the provisions in this legislation are going to be enormously helpful in strengthening law enforcement in these reservations that have huge problems," Dorgan said. "We have gang issues and drug cartels targeting reservations. Rape and sexual assault are prevalent."
He said a major concern was the number of cases that simply were not prosecuted.
"The serious crimes on reservations are supposed to be prosecuted by U.S. attorney's offices," he said. "Rates of declining prosecutions, what are called declination rates, are up to 50 percent for murders and 70 percent for rape and sexual assault. We need better law enforcement."
Under the new rules, the Justice Department will have to maintain data on the cases it does not pursue to prosecution. It will also have to share with tribal justice officials any evidence in cases not prosecuted.
The act also aims to clear up jurisdictional loopholes that allow some crimes to slip through the net. It will allow selected tribal police officers to enforce federal laws on Indian lands, whether or not the offender is Indian.
The National Congress of American Indians says it hopes the measure will mean that more sexual assaults carried out on the reservations by non-tribal members will be punished.
Tribal courts will be allowed to sentence offenders to up to three years in prison, increased from the current one-year maximum sentence.
All tribal and federal police officers in the reservations will receive extra training to interview sexual-assault victims and collect evidence from crime scenes.
According to a 2000 report by the Justice Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes, while 40 percent will be the victim of domestic violence.
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress, said Wednesday that the signing of the act would be "a significant and historic moment for tribal nations and federal law enforcement officials across the country."
"This legislation will empower tribal nations to begin to address crime rates that have risen in our communities as a result of jurisdictional and resource limitations," he said.
Dorgan, who is standing down as a senator this year, said the next battle would be to secure more funding to boost law enforcement on the reservations. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, around 3,000 police officers patrol 56 million acres of Indian land, about 48 percent less than the national average.