FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Three American Indian tribes in the West soon will have the power to prosecute non-Indians for a limited set of crimes, becoming the first group of native communities to get such authority since a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling forbade it.
The ruling stripped tribes of any criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians on their reservations. But last year's reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act allows tribes to bring cases against non-Indians for domestic violence crimes and violations of protection orders.
U.S. Department of Justice officials announced Thursday that the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Arizona, the Tulalip Tribes of Washington and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon have met requirements to implement provisions of the law starting Feb. 20 under a pilot project.
Other tribes can implement the law starting in March 2015.
The changes to tribal jurisdiction resulted from the high rate of domestic violence on reservations, and from an effort to give tribes more authority over crime, according to the Justice Department. American Indian women suffer from domestic violence at rates more than double national averages.
Jurisdiction on reservations is split among tribes, states and the federal government, depending on the crime and the race of the person involved.
Tribes have civil jurisdiction over non-Indians but often are reluctant to go forward with a case when the penalty amounts to a fine and offenders have little incentive to pay.
Federal authorities have jurisdiction over major crimes like homicide and assault resulting in serious bodily injury when the victim, suspect, or both, is American Indian. But not all domestic violence on reservations rises to the level of a federal crime.
"By showing people that, in fact, if a non-Indian commits these acts, we'll hold them accountable, it might encourage victims to come forward, speak out and seek help," said Brent Leonhard, an attorney in the Umatilla Office of Legal Counsel.
To become part of the pilot project, the three tribes had to amend their legal codes, create jury pools that include non-Indians and ensure defendants receive the same rights offered in state and federal courts. The Violence Against Women Act also allows defendants to petition a federal court for review of a tribal court decision.
The three tribes will have jurisdiction over non-Indians who live or work on the reservation and who are married to or in a partnership with a tribal member.
Pascua Yaqui Chief Prosecutor Fred Urbina estimates that 1,000 non-Indians live or work on the southern Arizona reservation. He said nearly 270 of the more than 500 criminal charges filed against American Indians in the tribal court in 2011 stemmed from domestic violence. While the caseload won't increase significantly with jurisdiction over non-Indians, he said the tribe can better send the message that justice for victims is possible.
"You don't really want one person being in that situation, being attacked and not having any kind of redress or justice," Urbina said Thursday. "I see that as one of the primary roles of any government, local, state or federal, is protecting your people."
The tribes are required to report cases to the Justice Department as well as any changes in personnel needed to meet the requirements of prosecuting non-Indians, Urbina said. Most tribes believe constitutional challenges will arise from their new authority but say they are prepared to defend their justice systems. Subjecting non-Indians to prosecution in tribal courts was a major point of contention in Congress.
Also on Thursday, officials from the Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women were in Albuquerque, N.M., to launch an online resource and training center for stemming sexual violence on tribal lands.
Deputy director Bea Thompson pointed to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that said 46 percent of American Indian women have been physically or sexually assaulted.
The National Indian Country Clearinghouse on Sexual Assault was developed in partnership with the nonprofit Southwest Center for Law and Policy and includes a hotline, online training programs, legal resources and information on the cultural challenges of responding to and prosecuting sexual abuse cases from Indian Country.
"We are at such a base level in terms of tribes being able to address violence against women issues," Thompson said. "It's such a huge problem."