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Tribes Given Power to Prosecute Non-Natives for Domestic Violence Crimes

Photo by Laurel Morales

Soon, three Western Native American Tribes will have the authority to prosecute non-natives for domestic violence and a handful of other crimes committed on tribal lands. As Arizona Public Radio’s Ryan Heinsius reports, it’s been three decades since tribes have had that power.

In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that tribes had no prosecution authority over non-natives living or working on reservations. But, after the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act last year by Congress, a handful of tribes were cleared to bring cases against non-natives for domestic violence and violations of protection orders. According to the Justice Department, the move is an effort to give tribes increased legal power in the midst of high rates of domestic violence on reservations.

After meeting certain requirements, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Arizona, the Tulalip Tribes of Washington State, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon will take part in the pilot program beginning February 20. But, many tribes in the U.S. find it difficult to enforce VAWA because of a pronounced lack of qualified judges and attorneys on reservations.

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of all Native American women have been physically or sexually assaulted. That rate is almost double the national average.

Tribes currently have civil jurisdiction over non-natives, but the new standards expand that authority into the criminal realm. Federal authorities have jurisdiction over crimes like murder and more severe cases of assault, but many instances of domestic violence fail to fall into the category of federal crimes.

All U.S. tribes will be able to put the law in into effect in March 2015.