Tribal Law and Order Act to Help Curb Epidemic of Violence

On July 30, 2010, President Obama signed the historic Tribal Law and Order Act into law.  The Act is an important step towards ending the crisis of violence against Native women currently occurring on tribal lands.  Native women face higher rates of violence than any other group in the United States.  One in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime; four in five women will be violently assaulted; and six in ten experience domestic abuse.  Complex jurisdictional issues have prevented the majority of these women from ever seeing their abusers or rapists brought to justice.

"It was an incredible honor to be present for this historic occasion," said Terri Henry, Indian Law Resource Center board member and Principle Director of Clan Star, Inc., a non-profit advocacy organization for women's rights. Henry is also a tribal council woman for the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

"This bill will show that crime is crime and when you perpetrate against people, there are consequences for it. We also want to see more support of tribal efforts to prosecute cases in Indian Country," said Henry.

Unlike in other communities in the United States, where the local community exercises law enforcement authority, the federal government is the primary law enforcement authority on tribal lands.  Unfortunately, the federal government has rarely managed to provide adequate law enforcement with recent studies showing that it has only prosecuted one in four sexual assaults occurring on tribal lands.

Native women advocates have long encouraged the federal government to enact legislation addressing public safety issues on tribal lands and the epidemic of violence currently occurring against Native women. 

The Tribal Law and Order Act increases protections for Native women by helping the federal government to respond better to the unique law enforcement challenges it faces on tribal lands.  First, it increases the accountability of federal law enforcement and US Attorneys by requiring them to report to and cooperate with tribal officials when they decline to investigate or prosecute cases on tribal lands.  It also expands the training of law enforcement officials on handling sexual assault and domestic abuse cases and authorizes the deputization of special assistant US attorneys to prosecute crimes on tribal lands.  Second, the Act gives tribes greater authority to hold perpetrators of violent crimes accountable by increasing the sentencing authority of tribal courts.  To date, under federal law, tribal courts have only been able to sentence Indian offenders to one year imprisonment.  Under the Act, tribal courts will be able to sentence Indian offenders to a three year prison term.  (Tribal courts still have no authority over non-Indian offenders).  Third, the Act enhances the ability of the Indian Health Service to respond to sexual assaults by requiring it to provide specific training on and standardized procedures for dealing with sexual assaults.  Finally, the Act seeks to prevent violence against Native women by improving and reauthorizing alcohol and substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.