Tester works to increase tribal jurisdiction

by Alex Ross – Havre Daily News

Native American tribes could soon have greater criminal jurisdiction in cases where nontribal members are suspected of committing certain crimes on Indian reservations.

U.S Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont ., the vice-chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said he brought up the Tribal Youth and Community Protection Act before the committee Wednesday.

The legislation would allow tribal governments to arrest, investigate and prosecute nontribal members suspected of committing crimes, including certain drug-related offenses, crimes against children and crimes against law enforcement officers.

Tester said, right now, reservation courts can only investigate and prosecute tribal members who commit such offenses.

Reservations must release other suspects into the custody of outside law enforcement agencies to be prosecuted by state and federal courts.

He said tribal leaders from different reservations have told him they are expelling their own members who sell drugs but cannot take action against nonmembers.

David Kuntz, a spokesperson for Tester, said many reservations are in isolated frontier areas where it’s often been difficult for criminal suspects to quickly prosecute criminal suspects.

Those suspected in felony cases could also be prosecuted by tribes, though whether they would do so would depend on how that crime is defined in the tribe’s criminal code.

Tester’s office said under the proposed legislation, nontribal members could also face prosecution for crimes committed against reservation children if suspects live on tribal land, work for tribes or have a relationship with a tribal member who resides on the reservation.

Kuntz said under the legislation, the constitutional rights of suspects would still be protected, and suspects could file appeals with federal courts over controversial decisions made by tribal courts.

The legislation would not alter the current maximum sentence of three years per offense that tribes are able to impose on criminals.

Though he said it is unlikely since many reservations lack the space needed to house them, offenders might also be held in reservation prisons, if those facilities are ones approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Kuntz said in such cases tribal governments could also enter into agreements with detention facilities in other jurisdictions. He said many reservations already have such agreements in place, where tribal members are housed in off-reservation detention facilities.

Tester said a hearing will need to be scheduled with either the Committee on Indian Affairs or Senate Judiciary Committee, before it is brought to the Senate floor for a vote.

He said no such date has yet been scheduled but he is confident that Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo, chair of the Indian Affairs Committee, “understands the magnitude of the issue” and the bill will not have a problem getting out of committee.