Tribal justice reform slow-going in Indian Country

Tribal justice reform slow-going in Indian Country

January 17th, 2013 by Associated Press in Local - Breaking News

Robin Sanchez hugs her 5-year-old daughter, Nicholle, as she talks about surviving domestic violence during an interview at her home in Acoma Pueblo, N.M. Hope was high in 2010 when President Barack Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, an overhaul intended to give tribal leaders more authority to combat crime on their reservations, but implementation of the law remains inconsistent on reservations nationwide.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

ACOMA PUEBLO, N.M. - In a desperate attempt to make it to the front door, Robin Sanchez crawled across the living room floor. Her ex-husband, fresh out of jail and intoxicated, used a wooden slat from one of the kitchen chairs to beat her.

She recalls how she was about to open the door when a loud crack resonated across her head. Blood gushed down her face as she heard her 3-year-old daughter cry: "Daddy, don't be mean to Mommy."

That September night in 2011 ended outside their home on the Acoma reservation in western New Mexico with tribal police officers, guns drawn, ordering Kirby Sanchez to release the mother of his child from a chokehold.

Scenes like this are far too common in Indian Country, where violent crime rates on some reservations are 20 times the national average. Women are especially vulnerable; federal statistics show that nearly half of all American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced physical violence, sexual assault or stalking by an intimate partner and 1 in 3 will be raped in her lifetime.

That's why hope was high in 2010 when President Barack Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, an overhaul intended to give tribal leaders more authority to combat crime on their reservations.

Among other things, the law expanded the sentencing authority of tribal courts, allowed for the appointment of special U.S. attorneys to prosecute violent crimes on reservation land and revamped training for reservation police officers.

Two and a half years later, implementation of the law remains a mixed-bag on reservations nationwide.

From New Mexico to Mississippi, law officers, prosecutors, health care workers and victim advocates have been trying to chip away at the problem, but former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who was the chief sponsor of the legislation, admits change is slow.

"It can be life or death for people," Dorgan said.

Many of the 566 federally recognized tribes have blamed a lack of funding for not moving ahead more quickly. While the federal government is providing some money for new programs, tribes are responsible for funding other elements of the law.

In other cases, tribal governments are still deliberating exactly how to institute the new measures, which require rewriting tribal constitutions or criminal codes.

"Tribes are thoughtful and careful about how they go through this stuff. You don't just change a criminal justice system overnight," said John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians.

The Hopi of northern Arizona were among the first in the nation to increase criminal sentences under the law. The tribe spent 18 months updating criminal codes to create a new class of felonies that could result in more jail time for convicted offenders.

Few tribes have put together all the pieces required to boost jail time, but progress is being made on other fronts. The Southern Utes in Colorado are now contracting with the federal government to hold detainees. On South Dakota's Rosebud Sioux reservation, tribal officials worked with the U.S. attorney's office to create a diversion program to keep juveniles out of trouble.

In Montana, special teams made up of tribal and federal officials were established last summer to investigate sexual assault cases.

The FBI has added a dozen victim specialists, and about 30 more federal prosecutors are working in Indian Country than there were four years ago. In New Mexico, for example, an assistant U.S. attorney is stationed now in Gallup, near the Navajo Nation.

Nationally, more than 2,000 criminal justice professionals have been part of a U.S. Department of Justice training initiative to improve prevention, investigation and prosecution of reservation crime. And the Indian Health Service last year more than tripled the number of workers trained to respond to sexual assault cases and conduct forensic exams.

At the Acoma Pueblo, officials started a new wellness program that aims to rehabilitate repeat offenders who are on probation by monitoring their alcohol use, providing substance abuse and mental health counseling and helping them earn GED certificates or return to college.

"We're changing our jail to more of a healing center and it's working," Acoma Public Safety Director Glenn Kelsey said. "They're getting educated, they're getting jobs, and now they're seeing what life is really about."

Tribal officers are also funneling more cases that involve habitual offenders like Kirby Sanchez to federal courts, where punishments can be stiffer.

Sanchez had been arrested a dozen times between 1993 and 2010 on aggravated battery and assault charges. Each time he was released, the same story played out.

"He would talk to me ... and tell me he was so sorry for what he did," Robin Sanchez said. "I thought, well, maybe if I stay and deal with it, I'll be OK. I've gotten this far."

After the 2011 attack, Sanchez was prosecuted in federal court and last month was sentenced to 37 months in prison, his longest jail sentence yet. Robin Sanchez is using that time to seek counseling in hopes of breaking the cycle.

Experts note that crime statistics in Indian Country are rising as more people report crimes and data collection improves under the new law.

In New Mexico, federal prosecutors opened 43 sexual assault cases in Indian Country in 2010. In the first nine months of 2012, that number increased to 62, said New Mexico U.S. Attorney Ken Gonzales.

In Montana, such cases have increased by about 12 percent, said Mike Cotter, the U.S. attorney there.

Both Gonzales and Cotter said they are trying to get prosecutors into the field more often, despite the time and distance involved in traveling to remote reservations.

Others said real change will happen only when tribes are given the opportunity to assert full authority over prosecuting crimes that happen on reservation lands - including the ability to prosecute non-Indians.

Said Troy Eid, a former U.S. attorney from Colorado and chairman of the commission overseeing the law's implementation: "By and large the system itself is flawed and will need to be changed."