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Strengthening the Violence Against Women Act

By supporting the Leahy-Crapo bill, Congress can give tribes authority to hold offenders accountable for their crimes against Native American women, regardless of race.

This week, the Senate will consider bipartisan legislation, introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Mike Crapo (R-ID),  that would reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). First authored by then-Senator Biden in 1994, VAWA provides funding to states and local communities to improve the criminal justice response to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.  VAWA supports specialized law enforcement units to investigate these crimes and helps prosecutors get dangerous offenders off the streets. Since the passage of the act, annual incidents of domestic violence have dropped by more than 60 percent. 

While tremendous progress has been made, violence is still a significant problem facing women, men, families, and communities.  On average, 3 women a day die as a result of domestic violence. The hidden crime of stalking affects 1 in 6 women and sexual assault remains the most underreported violent crime in the country. 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have been sexually assaulted at some time in their lives.  The Leahy-Crapo bill to reauthorize VAWA addresses today’s most pressing issues and builds on what we have learned over the past 17 years.  We must continue moving forward to reduce violence against all women. 

Native American women suffer from violent crime at some of the highest rates in the United States. One regional survey conducted by University of Oklahoma researchers showed that nearly three out of five Native American women had been assaulted by their spouses or intimate partners.  In addition, a recent Center for Disease Control (CDC) study found that 46 percent of Native American women have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Tribal leaders say there are countless more victims of domestic violence and sexual assault whose stories may never be told. 

With non-Indians constituting more than 76 percent of the overall population living on reservations and other Indian lands, interracial dating and marriage are common, and many of the abusers of Native American women are non-Indian men.  Too often, non-Indian men who batter their Indian wives and girlfriends go unpunished because tribes cannot prosecute non-Indians, even if the offender lives on the reservation and is married to a tribal member, and because Federal law‐enforcement resources are hours away from reservations and stretched thin.  

Congress can close this jurisdictional gap in the criminal justice system by supporting the Leahy-Crapo bill and providing tribes with the authority to hold offenders accountable for their crimes against Native American women, regardless of the perpetrator’s race   This bill builds on the Tribal Law and Order Act – which President Obama signed on July 29, 2010 – to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of tribal justice systems and will provide additional tools to tribal and Federal prosecutors to address domestic violence in Indian Country. 

Under the Leahy‐Crapo bill’s tribal‐jurisdiction provisions: 

  • Tribes could prosecute non‐Indians only for domestic violence, dating violence, and violations of protection orders.  Crimes between two strangers, or between two non‐Indians, or between persons with no ties to the tribe, would not be covered.
  • Federal‐ and state‐court jurisdiction over domestic violence would be unaffected.
  • Defendants would effectively have the same rights in tribal court as in state court, including due‐process rights and an indigent defendant’s right to free appointed counsel meeting Federal constitutional standards.
  • Defendants could protect their rights by appealing their convictions to a tribal court and filing habeas petitions in Federal court. 

The Administration strongly supports Senate passage of the Leahy-Crapo bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, a landmark piece of bipartisan legislation.  The Administration strongly supports measures in the bill that will bring justice to Native American victims. 

Vice President Biden has often said that passing VAWA in 1994 is the legislative achievement he is most proud of from his many years in the Senate. And yet, he knew then that it was just the beginning. For all the victims today, and for future generations, VAWA represents a promise to end violence against women. This week, the Senate has a chance to take another step towards fulfilling that promise for all victims.