Monday, March 5, 2012

The Tribal Law and Order Act: A Step in the Right Direction

On July 29, 2010, President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) into law.  The TLOA addresses several issues tribes were dealing with in criminal law.  These issues range from domestic violence against American Indian women to allowing tribes the ability to sentence offenders for longer periods of time.

At the time the bill was signed, reservations experienced violent crime rates that were 2.5 times the national crime rate.  One in three American Indian women were likely to be raped in their lifetime, a rate that is approximately two times the national average.  American Indian women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than all other races.  Three out of five American Indian women are assaulted by boyfriends or husbands according to the White House Advisor on Violence against Women, Lyn Rosenthal.  Just as alarmingly, American Indian women are ten times more likely to be murdered than the national rate.  While many factors contribute to these statistics, one glaring issue was that tribes were only authorized to punish criminal offenders to one year in prison.

Before the TLOA, tribes depended on federal prosecutions to impose longer sentences in more egregious crimes.  However, of the crimes reported to federal officials, fifty percent were declined for prosecution.  Consequently, tribes were forced to use such tactics as charging less severe crimes when prosecuting a serious crime.  By charging several crimes, the tribes could impose sentences consecutively, which means that the sentence could exceed the one year limit.  The TLOA increases the time limit for sentencing from one to three years. 

The statute also seeks to address domestic violence against American Indian women by providing for more training for police in Indian country.  These provisions include strategies for interviewing victims and witnesses and collecting evidence more effectively to ensure prosecution.  These new policies will be standardized to ensure that officers receive adequate training on handling these sorts of cases.

In addition, the TLOA has several other provisions to assist law enforcement on tribal land.  Now federal prosecutors must share evidence with tribal prosecutors.  Federal officers working on Indian land must also testify for the prosecution in tribal court if their work involved a case under tribal jurisdiction.  Tribal police now have more access to criminal history records in order to give them more information on potential suspects.

It remains to be seen how much effect the TLOA will have on crime rates on tribal land.  Crime on tribal land is caused by intersecting issues ranging from high rates of poverty to high rates of substance and alcohol abuse.  While the TLOA can address some of these issues, it cannot be seen as a complete solution to crime on tribal land.  More consistent federal prosecution and a greater police presence on reservations would also help lower these statistics, as tribal populations tend to be somewhat isolated compared to other areas.  Reservations should be safer, and the TLOA is a step in the right direction.

Bonnie Lindemann
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief

Image by NCAI

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