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Strengthening Our Commitment to Indian Country

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perrelli shares the work that the Department of Justice has undertaken to implement the Tribal Law and Order Act into law on the one year anniversary of President Obama signing it into law.

Ed. Note: Cross-posted from The Justice Blog.

Today marks the one year anniversary of the Tribal Law & Order Act (TLOA), an historic piece of legislation signed into law by President Obama on July 29, 2010. That anniversary represents an important moment to reflect on the work that has been done to address the crisis of the public safety in tribal communities and to recognize how much work remains to be done.

To offer just a snapshot of what’s at stake, studies show that nearly three out of five Native American women had been assaulted by their spouses or intimate partners and one third of all American Indian women will be raped during their lifetimes. We also know that, on some reservations, Native women are murdered at a rate more than ten times the national average. 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.

With these sobering statistics in mind, soon after he came into office, Attorney General Eric Holder identified building and sustaining safe and secure tribal communities as one of the Department of Justice’s top priorities—in line with his key goals of addressing violent crime and protecting our nation’s most vulnerable. In June of 2009, the Department launched a wide-ranging initiative to strengthen public safety in Indian Country. Since that time, the Department has taken a number of steps to deepen its commitment to tribal communities and to develop more effective partnership with tribal leaders, police, prosecutors, courts, and advocates to combat crime in tribal communities.

All U.S. Attorneys with Indian Country jurisdiction were directed to consult with tribes and develop specific operational plans to address public safety in tribal communities, and to ensure that the prosecution of crimes against Indian women and children is a priority. They were also directed to increase communication and develop new partnerships with tribal prosecutors and courts. The Attorney General created a Violence Against Women Federal and Tribal Prosecution Task Force to better coordinate efforts between the Department and tribal governments and to recommend best practices in ending the scourge of domestic violence. And this week, Attorney General Holder, 30 U.S. Attorneys, and other administration officials met in Rapid City and on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to engage in listening sessions with tribal leaders and hear from advocates in the fields of tribal safety and domestic violence.

The Justice Department has also directed an unprecedented increase in personnel to fight Indian Country crime. Today there are more federal prosecutors and victim specialists working in Indian Country than ever before. In the past two years, in addition to the dedicated professionals already working in Indian Country, the Department has deployed 28 new Assistant U.S. Attorneys to prosecute violent crimes in Indian Country, and the FBI has deployed 9 new investigators and 12 new victim advocates into areas where victim services are needed most.

Finally, the Department is engaging tribal youth in the areas of healthy relationships and lifestyles, education, substance and alcohol abuse, cultural preservation, community development and protecting the environment–in an effort to have lasting effects on families and communities. This week, the Department is hosting the National Intertribal Youth Summit in Santa Fe, NM to provide an opportunity for Obama administration officials to hear directly from 175 young men and women from nearly 50 tribes in Indian Country.

Without question, however, enactment of the TLOA has been a major step in our efforts to combat crime in Indian Country. The TLOA brought long overdue reforms that will over time further empower tribal governments, and strengthen their ability to keep neighborhoods safe and hold criminals accountable. At the same time, the law placed new obligations on the federal government to work in partnership with tribal authorities to address public safety for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The Department of Justice embraces those responsibilities and is working hard to implement all of the TLOA’s provisions. But even after the TLOA is fully implemented, we must recognize that there is and will remain much work left to be done to make tribal communities safe and secure. The TLOA was landmark legislation, but it cannot be the end of our efforts. For that reason, in addition to all of the many investments that the Department is making in Indian Country, it is also advocating for more tools to address a problem that tribal leaders across the country have identified as a top priority – ending the scourge of domestic violence.

Last week, the Obama Administration unveiled a new proposal for legislation to combat the epidemic rates of violence against Native women in Indian Country. The proposed legislation offers a broader set of tools for Federal and tribal law enforcement agencies to hold perpetrators of domestic violence accountable for their crimes. It builds on the philosophy of the TLOA by recognizing that tribal authorities, in collaboration with their federal partners, are best able to address crime in their communities if they are given the tools and resources needed to do it.

We look forward to working with tribal leaders and Congress on this legislation. In spite of the work of many dedicated people in the law enforcement and support services communities, there are still victims of crime who are afraid to raise their voices, and many law enforcement agencies without sufficient resources to meet existing challenges. As we celebrate this first year since TLOA’s passage, we are reminded of the great need that still remains, and we renew our commitment to finally end the public safety crisis facing American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Thomas Perrelli is Associate Attorney General