Tester’s Tribal Criminal Justice Reform Bill Receives Senate Hearing

(U.S. Senate)-Senator Jon Tester’s legislation that will restore criminal prosecution jurisdiction to Native American tribes and address the growing drug epidemic in Indian Country received a hearing yesterday in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Tester’s bill, the Tribal Youth and Community Protection Act, will reestablish the ability for tribes to arrest and prosecute any offender, including non-Indians, for drug related crimes, domestic violence against children, and crimes committed against tribal law enforcement officers.

“Restoring tribal criminal jurisdiction will increase self-determination and better allow tribes to protect their communities from folks who cause harm,” Tester said. “This bill provides tribes the certainty to arrest, prosecute, and convict criminals who traffic illegal drugs and harm women and children in Indian Country.”

During the hearing, Tester’s bill was endorsed by Fort Peck Council Member Dana Buckles. The Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation recently finished a two year pilot program that allowed them to prosecute non-Indians for intimate partner domestic violence crimes committed on their Reservation.

“Our tribal law enforcement and our courts are the resources that are working on the ground every day in our community. They know the victims and they know the perpetrators. They do not have the same structural barriers to prosecuting these difficult cases encountered by the U.S. Attorney,” Councilman Buckles said. “In order to respond to this tide of violence, Congress must empower tribes by recognizing our inherent jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against our children and bring drugs into our communities.”

In Montana, the Northern Cheyenne, Blackfeet, and Fort Belknap Tribes have all recently declared states of emergency due to the increase in drug related crimes on their reservations.

Currently, many criminals committing drug offenses or crimes against children in Indian Country can only be arrested and prosecuted by state or federal law enforcement officials due in part to the varying level of authority, proximity, and capacity between state, federal, and tribal law enforcement.

In 1978, the Supreme Court decision, Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, limited tribes’ criminal jurisdiction, gravely impacting tribes’ ability to administer justice in Indian Country.

In 2013, Congress passed legislation that restores tribes’ authority to arrest and prosecute any offender for acts of domestic violence against their partner, but the law does not protect children and other tribal members.

Tester’s Tribal Youth and Community Protection Act is available HERE.

Facts on the Tribal Youth and Community Protection Act:
*In tribal court, sentences are limited to a maximum of three years per offense, and multiple sentences can be stacked on one another.
*If a non-Indian defendant is found guilty, they would serve jail time in a tribal correctional facility that has been approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tribes are also free to enter into agreement with regional detention facilities that could be located off a reservation-in which case the guilty offender would serve time in that facility.
*All defendants suspected of drug crimes on tribal lands will have to appear in tribal court.
*The Tribal Youth and Community Protection Act builds on existing federal law that describes the ties a defendant must have to the tribe for the tribal court to hear a case that is not a drug offense.
*Individuals suspected of committing crimes against children will need to have ties like those currently applicable to domestic violence crimes, which include:
      -Living on the tribe’s lands, or
      -Being employed by the tribe, or
      -Having a relationship (as defined in federal law) with a tribal member or Native American living on the tribe’s lands.
*The Tribal Youth and Community Protection Act maintains current federal law, which requires tribal courts to provide constitutional protections to defendants when exercising criminal jurisdiction related to the bill.
      -These protections provide a check on controversial or uncertain charges against a suspect/defendant.
      -Additionally, if a tribal court issues a controversial decision, a defendant can request that a federal court review the legality of his or her detention.
*All non-Indian defendants in tribal court will have the same constitutional protections as they would have in federal court, including:
      -Right to a speedy and public trial.
      -Right to counsel.
      -Right to not incriminate oneself.