WASHINGTON - In testimony before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Associate U.S. Attorney General Tom Perrelli has recommended legal reforms to improve the safety of women in tribal communities and allow Federal and tribal law-enforcement agencies to hold more perpetrators of domestic violence accountable for their crimes.
At the hearing, entitled “Native Women: Protecting, Shielding, and Safeguarding our Sisters, Mothers, and Daughters,” Perrelli spoke to the epidemic rates of violence against Native American women in Indian country and the department’s commitment to enhancing legal protections for them. He cited research revealing that one-third of these women will be raped during their lifetimes, and nearly 3 out of 5 Native American women have been assaulted by their spouses or intimate partners.
Shedding light on the limitations of the current legal system in prosecuting violence against women in Indian country, Associate Attorney General Perrelli explained that the current structure is not well-suited to handling these patterns of escalating violence:
“Federal resources, which are often the only ones that can investigate and prosecute these crimes, are often far away and stretched thin. Tribal governments — police, prosecutors, and courts — should be essential parts of the response to these crimes; but under current law, they lack the authority to address many of these crimes. Until recently, no matter how violent the offense, tribal courts could only sentence Indian offenders to one year in prison. And, research shows that law enforcement’s failure to arrest and prosecute abusers both emboldens attackers and deters victims from reporting future incidents. In short, the jurisdictional framework has left many serious acts of domestic violence and dating violence unprosecuted and unpunished.”
The Justice Department has been taking steps to combat such inefficiencies.
The DOJ has deployed 28 new Assistant U.S. Attorneys whose sole mission is to prosecute crime in Indian country. U.S. Attorneys have been instructed to prioritize the prosecution of crimes against Indian women and children. A new new domestic-violence training programs for law enforcement officials has been establisheed. Also, a Violence Against Women Federal-Tribal Prosecution Task Force has been created.
Despite all the changes, Associate Attorney General Perrelli told the Senate Committee, there are areas ripe for legislative reform. He noted the the lack of recognition of certain tribes’ power to exercise concurrent criminal jurisdiction over domestic violence cases, regardless of whether the defendant is Indian or non-Indian.
Another problem Perrelli highlighted was the lack of civil jurisdiction to issue and enforce protection orders against Indians and non-Indians throughout Indian country.
The lack of the necessary statutory tools in the hands of Federal prosecutors to combat domestic violence in Indian country is seen as a problem as well.