Tribal attorneys share woes fighting reservation crime

Great Falls Tribune

by Kimball Bennion

ROCKY BOY — Inadequate funding and overwhelming caseloads were the main concerns brought up during a brief meeting Thursday between U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and tribal attorneys from all seven of Montana’s reservations at Stone Child College on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.

Tester stopped by during an all-day meeting between U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter and the seven tribal attorneys, who adopted the group name of the Montana Tribal Prosecutors Organization.

Tester said he was encouraged by the initiative shown by the meeting, but offered no easy answers to the economic and criminal woes on Montana’s reservations.

“I don’t need to tell the folks sitting around this table how detrimental (crime on reservations) really is,” Tester said. “You guys have got a hell of a job, and it’s a difficult one.”

That difficulty is exacerbated by a lack of funding, according to Diane Cabrera, a Crow tribal prosecutor and special assistant U.S.

attorney, who spoke to Tester on Thursday about some of the issues they previously discussed “We’re severely underfunded,” Cabrera said. “My caseload varies from 3,000 to 4,000 cases per year.”

The Democratic senator and Montana’s lone member of the Indian Affairs Committee was careful to point out that while he thought the prosecutors’ needs were important, any request for additional funding will be under scrutiny in Washington, D.C.

“I think we need to look for opportunities to get the money on the ground in the right amounts,” Tester said.

He told the attorneys and other representatives from tribal law enforcement agencies around the state that the best bet for making sure their needs are heard in Washington is to provide him with a list of specific recommendations, which he would take to Congress.

One thing that already seemed to be fleshed out as a common concern among the new organization was the need for education and training for tribal attorneys and their staff. Cabrera said there also is a need for tribal attorneys and their federal counterparts to communicate about cases.

Cotter, who also spoke with Tester at the meeting, said his office contacts the state’s tribal attorneys once every two weeks, at which time they decide which cases from the reservations should be taken on in federal court, and which ones can be taken care of in tribal courts.

“The communication model is very good, and one that we will proceed to use in the future,” Cotter said.