Legislative Update – 116th Congress (2019-2020)

Updated March 19, 2019 | Several bills have been introduced in the Senate thus far this year that could help address the epidemic levels of violence against indigenous women. 

On March 13, 2019 a bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act passed the House Judiciary Committee. The bill, H.R. 1585, will now come before the full House of Representatives for a vote.  This bipartisan bill was introduced by Rep. Karen Bass (D-California) and currently has 91 co-sponsors. 

Critically, this new version of the law would not only reaffirm the tribal provisions found in VAWA 2013, but would expand the list of crimes that tribes are able to prosecute to include sexual violence, sex trafficking, stalking and assault of law enforcement or corrections officers. The draft bill also explicitly recognizes the specific jurisdictional complexities that Alaska Native Villages face due to the fact that the Native land in Alaska is not generally defined as “Indian country” under current federal law, a term used to define the geographic areas where tribes are able to exercise jurisdiction. To begin addressing this issue, the bill would establish a pilot project to allow up to five tribes in Alaska to exercise criminal jurisdiction in the same way that the law allows tribes in the Lower 48. 

For more information about the urgent need for provisions to address the extreme rates of violence against Alaska Native women, please visit the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center at http://www.aknwrc.org/reauthorization-of-vawa-house-bill-1585-introduced/.

The full text of the  current bill is available at https://judiciary.house.gov/sites/democrats.judiciary.house.gov/files/documents/VAWA_2019_xml%20%28003%29--Final%20Text%20%28004%29_0.pdf.

A bill to reauthorize the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, S. 85, was introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) on January 10, 2019. The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) is an important source of funding for tribal domestic violence programs. Funding is used for a broad range of victim support services, including emergency shelter, crisis hotlines, counseling services, victim assistance initiatives. The FVPSA reauthorization process creates important opportunities to improve the federal response to violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women. For example, the FVPSA reauthorization could increase dedicated tribal funding in the law and allow tribal coalitions to access funds in the same manner as state coalitions. The reauthorization also could permanently include two important programs--the StrongHearts Native Helpline and the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center—in the continuous funding scheme of FVPSA. The Helpline offers a toll-free telephone helpline to assist Native Americans affected by domestic violence and dating violence, while the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center, an Alaska non-profit entity, works to strengthen local, tribal government’s responses through community organizing efforts advocating for the safety of women and children in their communities and homes, especially against domestic and sexual abuse and violence. The bill was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

The Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment Act or the SURVIVE Act, S. 211, was introduced by Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) with ten bipartisan cosponsors on January 24, 2019 and was referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs. The bill would amend the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 to secure urgent resources vital to Indian victims of crime. The bill would give tribes access to a critical source of funding  by make a 5% set aside permanent for tribes from the Crime Victims Fund. On January 29, 2019, the Committee on Indian Affairs ordered the bill to be reported without amendment favorably.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) introduced the Tribal Law and Order Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2019 on January 24, 2019.  Section 2 of the bill would include findings that according to the Department of Justice in 2014, 34% of the total Indian country criminal matters submitted for prosecution were declined and that this percentage has not significantly decreased since enactment of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010.  Additionally, the bill would note that only about 43% of the total need for law enforcement officers working on public safety in Indian country is being met. On January 29, 2019, the Committee on Indian Affairs ordered the bill to be reported without amendment favorably.

S. 227, Savanna’s Act, was introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) on January 25, 2019, with 13 bipartisan cosponsors. The bill that would improve information sharing among federal and tribal law enforcement and improve data collection on the missing in Indian country. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs.

The Native Youth and Tribal Officer and Protection Act, S. 290, introduced by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) on January 31, 2019, would effectively expand the tribal jurisdiction provisions of VAWA 2013 to allow tribes to exercise criminal jurisdiction over an additional set of crimes—acts of violence against children and tribal law enforcement officers. Tribes who have implemented the Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction under VAWA 2013 have recognized that the lack of jurisdiction over the crimes that often co-occur with acts of domestic violence has resulted in unnecessary complications. While implementing tribes may be able to prosecute an offender for domestic violence, they are unable to bring charges against the same person for crimes committed against children as part of the same domestic violence incident or for assaults on law enforcement responding to domestic violence calls. 

On January 31, 2019, Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) introduced the Justice for Native Survivors of Sexual Assault Act, S. 288. Like the Native Youth and Tribal Officer Protection Act, the Justice for Native Survivors of Sexual Assault Act would also expand tribal jurisdiction, although this bill addresses crimes of sexual violence, sex trafficking and stalking.

The Studying the Missing and Murdered Indian Crisis Act, S. 339, was introduced by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) on February 5, 2019, to direct the Comptroller General to submit a report on law enforcement agencies’ response to reports of missing or murdered Indians. The bill was referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs. According to a press release from Senator Tester’s office, the bill  would commission a federal study on the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women, directing the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a full review of how federal agencies respond to reports of missing and murdered Native Americans and recommend solutions based on their findings. Besides improving law enforcement cooperation and information sharing, the bill also would direct the GAO to make recommendations on how best to address social, economic, and other underlying factors fueling this crisis. (https://www.tester.senate.gov/?p=press_release&id=6611). The bill was referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs.

The House and Senate approved H.J. Res. 31, the Consolidated Appropriations Act on February 14, 2019, which was signed into law by the President on February 15, 2019. The omnibus appropriations bill will fund the federal government though September 30, 2019 and end the longest government shutdown in history. The Act provides funding for seven appropriations bills. Congress rejected funding cuts to Indian Affairs sought by the Administration. The final bill exceeds the FY 2018 enacted levels by $266.4 million for the Indian Health Service and $17.4 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Administration is expected to release a proposed FY 2020 budget the week of March 11. Significantly, the bill does not include any extensions to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Democrats apparently successfully lobbied to keep a clean extension of VAWA out of the appropriations legislation in order to create leverage for negotiating a broader VAWA reauthorization in the coming months. Although VAWA lapsed on February 15, 2019, the tribal provisions in the law, including Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction, remain in effect. We expect a VAWA Reauthorization bill to be introduced early this year.