On July 29, President Barack Obama signed into law the Tribal Law and Order Act, which will provide greater authority for tribal law enforcement and courts to prosecute and punish criminals on Indian reservations across the United States. The legislation was passed by Congress a week prior to Obama signing it in a White House ceremony featuring tribal leaders from across Indian Country. Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community President Diane Enos was one of those present on the stand watching as Obama signed the legislation.
In an online news video supporting the Act released by the White House on July 28, Rosebud Sioux tribal member Lisa Marie Iyotte had a difficult time as she shared her personal story of being assaulted in 1994. When Iyotte was unable to continue, Obama walked up and encouraged her to tell her story. Iyotte was raped and violently beaten in front of her two young children. She received very little medical treatment for her injuries, and no investigation by tribal authorities was ever conducted. A few months later, the man was finally arrested and convicted after assaulting and raping a teenage girl, but the man was never convicted or punished for his attack on Iyotte.
“The Tribal Law and Order Act will prevent cases like mine from slipping through the cracks,” said Iyotte. “If the Tribal Law and Order Act existed 16 years ago, my story would be very different.”
The new law will set standardized sexual-assault policies and protocols at Indian Health Service facilities, better procedures for evidence collection to boost conviction rates, and expanded training for tribal enforcement officers to ensure that victims of domestic violence and sexual assault will be met by authorities who understand their cases, explained Iyotte during her speech.
“This Act is for every survivor like Lisa who never got their day in court, every family who feels that justice is beyond reach, and for every tribal community struggling to keep its people safe,” said Obama before signing the legislation. “And in [signing the Tribal Law and Order Act today], I intend to send a clear message to all of our people, if they live in our biggest cities or our most remote reservations, [that they] have the right to feel safe in their own communities and to raise their children in peace and enjoy the fullest protection of our laws.”
SRPMIC Role in Crafting the Legislation
Just days before the signing, Au-Authm Action News interviewed Community President Enos and Vice-President Martin Harvier about the possible signing of the Tribal Law and Order Act. Enos detailed the tribe’s participation in the legislation by hosting Senate Select Committee hearings, which gave tribes the opportunity to voice their opinions, and offering recommendations that are now included in the law.
“The Act includes provisions that strengthen law enforcement and justice efforts in Indian Country,” said President Enos during her monthly interview with Au-Authm Action News. “Significantly, it permits tribal law enforcement to access and enter information into criminal information databases. Regarding tribal courts, sentencing authority for certain serious offenses will now be expanded to three years and a $15,000 fine for one offense and nine years for multiple offenses.
This will replace the current one-year maximum. These maximums will apply when a defendant has previously been convicted of the same or a comparable offense by a state or federal court, or when someone who commits an offense on tribal land that is comparable to an offense punishable by more than one year by federal law.”
In addition, the Law and Order Act clearly defines the rights of persons accused of these offenses. The tribes are required to provide defense attorneys licensed to practice in any jurisdiction in the United States that has appropriate standards.
The Act also raises the bar on standards for judges and defense counsel. Judges under the Act will be required to have sufficient legal training to preside over criminal proceedings and must be licensed to practice law in any jurisdiction in the United States, including tribal court.
The Act also ensures tribal and federal officers serving in Indian Country are trained in collecting evidence and interviewing crime victims properly so that cases are not declined because of a lack of evidence. Overall there will be a better working relationship between the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Department of Justice and the Office of Indian Alcohol and Substance Abuse.
Now that the Tribal Law and Order Act has become law, tribal councils across the nation are working to update their criminal and judicial codes to start incorporating its provisions.
The next step for the Community is that Council must decide to what extent it wants to apply the Tribal Law and Order Act. Council will decide which Community offenses are appropriate to be considered “violent crimes” that would require a minimum of three years of jail time, explained Community Prosecutor Sheri Freemont. “They [Council] may need to enact ordinances regarding crimes or exapanding the sentencing ranges of crimes that we already have.
“I think the Community will jump on the change more quickly and aggressively than other tribes,” said Freemont. “For most tribes it can take up to six months to a year; it’s really up to each tribal council and how they prioritize it.”
The SRPMIC Prosecutor’s Office will have to become familiar with new laws or ordinances that the Council may enact in the future. Meanwhile, it will continue to prosecute crimes to the fullest extent of the law and maintain defendants’ rights to due process.
Freemont said, “I think [the Tribal Law and Order Act is] a good thing, because I believe it’s an act of Congress putting a little faith in tribes to handle their own business. And I think that tribal leaders such as President Enos and others worked really hard to [ensure the new law addresses] some of the (crime) issues that threaten their own communities.
The new law underscores the importance of criminals on tribal lands having to answer to their own communities, Freemont explains. “If you have to stand up and be convicted in front of your own Community-member jury and serve your time here, I think it means more than it does outside, because it means that this Community said that what you did was not right.”