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U.S. Senate Passes Tribal Law and Order Act

Thune Applauds Measure That Seeks to Address Reservation Crime Problems

June 24, 2010

WASHINGTON, DC —  Senator John Thune today applauded the U.S. Senate's passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act (S. 797) yesterday by unanimous consent. The Tribal Law and Order Act provides for the appointment of special U.S. Attorneys who can ensure that violent crimes on reservations are prosecuted, improves the training programs for reservation police, empowers tribal courts to address crime by extending their sentencing authority, and improves the collection and reporting of data relating to crime in Indian Country.

"Many tribal communities in South Dakota and across the nation lack basic public safety resources, and there are many negative consequences," said Thune. "An unsafe school environment with exposure to violence and drugs puts students at a disadvantage. Similarly, businesses will continue to struggle to create jobs if basic public safety needs cannot be met. Tackling the crime issue will help to pave the way for major quality of life improvements in Indian Country. I have listened to tribal leaders and citizens in South Dakota and have worked together with them to try to find solutions.

"Making greater efforts to prosecute reservation crime will require the coordination of tribal, state, and federal authorities. This bill is a positive step toward achieving that goal."

Senator Thune, an original co-sponsor of this legislation, was a leader in the first Tribal Law and Order Act, which was originally introduced in September 2008.

That year, Senator Thune asked South Dakota tribal leaders, law enforcement officials, and other stakeholders to submit their comments and suggestions on the draft bill that was circulated at that time. As a result of those comments, Senator Thune worked with Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) to include a provision that allows magistrates to hold trials and other court proceedings in tribal courtrooms as opposed to federal courts. Senator Thune also added language ensuring that if tribal governments and federal courts enter into agreements allowing for such trials, the Department of Justice is authorized to provide technical and other assistance.

The bill also includes a provision advocated by Senator Thune that would increase the maximum hiring age for Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) law enforcement officers from 37 years old to 47 years old. This would allow individuals who retire from military service to serve as tribal law enforcement officers.

Another Thune provision requires that the Department of Justice report on the most effective methods of using community policing programs on Indian reservations and to review the effectiveness of past community policing efforts on reservations. Thune's provision also directs the Department of Justice to explore the implementation of policing techniques guided by the "broken windows theory," which emphasizes the importance of addressing small-scale crimes that contribute to a climate of law-breaking which can overwhelm and destabilize a community.

Last fall, the U.S. Attorney General and other top officials at the Justice Department met with tribal leaders to discuss public safety concerns. The Obama Administration officials indicated their support for the Tribal Law and Order Act, as well as for increased prosecutions of crimes in Indian Country and for bringing judges closer to reservations.

The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009 goes beyond the 2008 bill in requiring more detailed reporting by the BIA to Congress. It also gives tribal law enforcement agencies access to the National Crime Information Center and recognizes the need for tribal 9-1-1 emergency services.

In addition to his work on this bill, Senator Thune has requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) study tribal court systems and ways they can be improved. The GAO continues to make progress regarding their study and indicates that a report should be ready by the fall.