By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
A major piece of legislation affecting law enforcement within tribal communities was passed by the House on Wednesday, July 21. The Tribal Law & Order Act of 2009 grants Tribal Courts the authority to impose harsher sentences and requires U.S. Attorneys to keep a better record of declinations involving Indian Country among other provisions.
“Today’s passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act is an important step to help the federal government better address the unique public safety challenges that confront tribal communities,” President Obama said in a statement. “The federal government’s relationship with tribal governments, its obligations under treaty law, and our values as a nation require that we do more to improve public safety in tribal communities. And this Act will help us achieve that.”
Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) introduced the bill in the House and was ecstatic at Wednesday’s passage. “I introduced this bipartisan bill because of the urgent need to improve law enforcement in Indian Country. Native American families, like all families, deserve a basic sense of safety and security in their communities.”
The bill was introduced as H.R. 1924 and was passed by the House as part of H.R. 725 Indian Arts and Crafts Amendments Act of 2010.
“This new law will set a standard of tough law enforcement in Indian Country,” said Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians. “The primary function of all governments is to provide safety and security for their people, and tribal governments will use this law to elevate public safety in our communities.”
Following the passage of the Senate version of the bill, William Boyum, an EBCI tribal member and Chief Justice of the Cherokee Supreme Court expressed his pleasure and said it would strengthen law enforcement within tribal communities. “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 Act 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.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) said in a statement, “This is a major victory for not only Oklahoma, but all of Indian Country. Today, Congress has approved the greatest stride forward for public safety in Indian Country in decades.” Rep. Cole is a member of the Chickasaw Nation and the only American Indian currently serving in Congress.
Prior to Wednesday’s vote, two former U.S. Attorneys sent a letter of support for the bill to several high-ranking Congressmen including Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), the chairman of the House Judiciary Community. Thomas B. Heffelfinger and Troy A. Eid wrote, “Enacting this bill will help make federal prosecutors serving Indian Country more accountable and responsive to local needs. H.R. 725 will also provide tribal governments with more flexible sentencing authority that respects the rights of crime victims and criminal defendants alike. Communities across Indian Country stand to gain from the prudent use of these enhanced tools to enforce the rule of law.”
Not everyone was pleased with the bill’s passage however. Some Republicans including Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), expressed displeasure at the way the bill was passed. “When a widely supported arts and crafts bill that is just a few pages in length and costs nothing is changed by the Senate to run over 100 pages with authorized spending of over a billion dollars, that is simply unacceptable,” he was quoted on Indianz.com.
The bill now awaits the signature of President Obama.