By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
Tribal Courts may soon have more leeway in sentencing thanks to a Senate Bill passed on June 23. Senate Bill S.797, aka Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009, grants Tribal Courts the authority to impose a sentence of three years imprisonment and a fine of up to $15,000 for a single count. Those are raised from the previous maximums of one year imprisonment and a $5,000 fine as outlined in the Indian Civil Rights Act.
The Tribal Law and Order Act was passed as an amendment to the Indian Arts and Crafts Amendments Act of 2010. The bill is now being considered in the House Subcommittee on Crimes, Terrorism, and Homeland Security as H.R. 1924.
“The passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act is great news,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) who introduced the bill in the Senate. “Native American families have a right to live in a safe and secure environment. The federal government has treaty and trust obligations to see that they do.”
Sen. Dorgan continued, “For much of our history, however, the federal government has done a poor job of meeting those obligations. This legislation will help turn that failure around and is a big step forward in fighting violent crime in Indian Country.”
William Boyum, an EBCI tribal member and Chief Justice of the Cherokee Supreme Court stated, “Senator Dorgan’s bill would assist tribal law enforcement in many areas. Two of the most beneficial provisions in the bill would require U.S. Attorneys to keep a better record of declinations and would allow Tribal Courts to punish criminals with active sentences as long as three years. The bill aims to reduce the number of declinations and to encourage U.S. Attorneys to make their acceptance/declination decisions in a more expeditious manner.”
According to information obtained from Sen. Dorgan’s office, “Federal officials have declined to prosecute more than 50 percent of violent crimes in Indian Country, and a higher rate of sexual assaults.”
Chief Justice Boyum said that the bill would allow U.S. Attorneys to appoint Tribal prosecutors as special Assistant U.S. Attorneys who could take cases into federal court themselves. “This would be a great benefit to all Tribes since many serious crimes do not fit within federal prosecutorial guidelines and get declined even though federal court would be the most appropriate place to prosecute.”
He was also very pleased with the increased sentencing allowance. “The increase in maximum punishments shows that Congress has begun to recognize that Tribal Courts are truly functional and fair courts, even for more serious crimes. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a larger movement to close the weak links in the Indian justice system that were created by Congress and the Supreme Court in the first place.”
The House bill was introduced by Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) who testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security on Dec. 10, 2009. “While there is no simple or quick fix, this comprehensive legislation is a step in the right direction,” she said during her testimony. “By passing this legislation, we’ll make important strides in improving law enforcement in Indian Country during this Congress.”