Justice News

Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli Speaks at the Four Corners Indian Country Conference
Ignacio, CO
United States
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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Remarks as prepared for delivery:

Thank you John [Walsh], for that kind introduction, and for hosting and allowing me to join all of you at this year’s Four Corners Indian Country Conference. I also want to thank the other representatives of the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, the FBI, and other federal agencies, as well as the tribal leaders, law enforcement officers, service providers, and advocates, who are here and who are on the front lines in our shared effort to improve the lives in Indian people. A year ago this week I spent some time at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian; and I understand that some of the local artifacts that were temporarily housed at the Smithsonian are now on display here, at their home, at the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum. It is an impressive center that not only captures the cultural heritage of the Southern Ute tribe and region, but offers visitors an experience rooted in history and firmly grounded in the present. It is an ideal venue for our work here this week.

As John said, I serve as the Associate Attorney General—and, in that capacity, I oversee a number of different components within the Justice Department that work with tribal nations on a day-to-day basis. I had the good fortune to work for Attorney General Reno in the 1990s as the lead person on her staff on tribal issues. And since I returned to the Department as the Associate Attorney General with this Administration, two and a half years ago, responding to the critical needs of Tribal Nations has been a top priority for this Justice Department. And that’s a priority that comes from the top. President Obama has shown an unprecedented commitment to working with tribal nations on the problems that they face, and Attorney General Holder has made public safety in Indian Country a top priority of the Department.

When we first announced a tribal public safety initiative in 2009, not surprisingly, we were met with skepticism. After all, promises have been made before and promises have not been kept. But our goal from the outset was to demonstrate, day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year, that the Department was seriously committed to improving its performance in Indian Country and to empowering tribal nations to work to improve public safety in their communities. Years from now, when the history of this Administration is written, we hope, and we believe, that Attorney General Holder’s efforts to enhance public safety for Tribal Nations will be a significant legacy.

I want to thank everyone in this audience who has participated in a listening session, roundtable, or informal or formal consultations—so that we can learn how to better fulfill our trust responsibility. These government-to-government conversations have helped us understand the value of comprehensive, holistic approaches to justice and safety, to best help support and protect Tribal Nations and their communities.

I have been inspired by so much that I have seen and learned over the last two years. I have been inspired, for example, by members of the Tulalip Tribe from Washington state, who have shown how we can make a difference in the lives of Native women. The Tulalip’s victim-centered approach has improved the access to services for the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. They not only turned a former tribal police building into a shelter but also created a partnership that provides support to victims, aids them in finding transitional housing assistance, and offers training on evidence collection for law enforcement and prosecution. I was moved when I visited the Tulalip tribe in 2009, and saw first-hand how a comprehensive approach can help heal both the victim and his or her community.

Many of you in this room have created hubs for innovation. We see, as an example, the Wanbli Wiconi Tipi (or Eagle Life Center) in South Dakota as a national model for juvenile custody and care. The facility provides a comprehensive network of resources through partnerships with health, education, alcohol treatment, and cultural services. In addition to detention quarters, the facility provides a full continuum of services, including behavior management and mental health counseling, a Lakota cultural curriculum, a Transitional Living Unit, and a Day Reporting Center. We are glad that our grant dollars have been able to support this type of facility and hope that it inspires other similar models across the country.

Today, I’d also like to report back to you how we, within the Department are seeking to meet our commitments to tribal nations. I think of our work in Indian country as falling into three main categories: first, institutionalizing the Department’s commitment to Indian country so that the gains we achieve have the best possible chance to last; second, improving the Department’s performance in Federal law enforcement; and third, helping tribes build their criminal-justice and law-enforcement capacity because we believe that tribes know best and are best able to address the public safety challenges in their own communities.

First, on institutionalizing change that cannot be easily undone, we have made the Office of Tribal Justice permanent within the Department of Justice so that tribal nations will always have a voice at the Department, we have formed the Tribal Nations Leadership Council so that the Attorney General can hear directly from tribal leaders on issues of importance. And the Department has directed our U.S. Attorneys with Indian Country jurisdiction to deepen their engagement with tribal nations by consulting with tribes in their districts and develop specific operational plans to address public safety. To that end, the Department has engaged in dozens of consultations and training sessions with tribes on issues important to public safety and justice. Most recently, in July, Attorney General Holder, 30 U.S. Attorneys, administration colleagues and I visited Rapid City, South Dakota and Pine Ridge Reservation to hear from tribal leaders and advocates in the field.

And most significantly, the Department supported, with many of you, the passage of the Tribal Law & Order Act (TLOA) – landmark legislation which will increase accountability for federal agencies responsible for public safety in Indian Country and give tribal governments additional tools to keep their communities safe. We know that this law is making a real difference in the lives of Native people and we are working closely with our partners at the White House, the Department of Interior, and other federal agencies to ensure that it is fully implemented. This is a shared success and I want to thank you for your efforts to make it a reality.

Second, on improving our own performance, the Department is focused on fully implementing the TLOA, including, among other things, working to finalize a rule for the accession of concurrent jurisdiction in appropriate circumstances, starting a pilot program in which BOP will take up to 100 more hard core offenders sentenced by tribal courts, and entering into an MOU with HHS to work collaboratively on the problems of alcohol and substance abuse in American Indian and Alaska Native communities. The Justice Department has also directed an unprecedented increase in personnel to fight Indian Country crime. Today there are more federal prosecutors and victim specialists working in Indian Country than ever before. In the past two years, in addition to the dedicated professionals already working in Indian Country, the Department has deployed 28 new Assistant U.S. Attorneys to prosecute violent crimes in Indian Country, and the FBI has deployed 9 new investigators and 12 new victim advocates into areas where victim services are needed most.

We also have refocused our U.S. Attorneys on prosecuting crimes in Indian Country and focused them especially on crimes against Indian women and children. And, last year, the Attorney General created a Violence Against Women Federal and Tribal Prosecution Task Force to better coordinate efforts between the Department and tribal governments and to recommend best practices for addressing crimes against women. We have also put resources into training federal and tribal law enforcement personnel and prosecutors on matters related to violence against women, including the habitual offender and firearms provisions of the Violence Against Women Act.

Third, we are focused on empowering tribal communities to give them the tools that they need to improve public safety. Despite the difficult budget environment, we’ve continued to advocate for substantially increased funding for tribal governments – asking for an increase of more than 50% in tribal grant funding for FY2012.

And most recently, we have turned out attention to one of the most significant problems that tribal leaders have told us they face – the lack of sufficient tools and authority to combat the epidemic rates of violence against Native women in Indian Country.

All of you know the problem. Federal resources, which are often the only ones that can investigate and prosecute these crimes, are often far away and stretched thin. Though tribal governments — police, prosecutors, and courts — should be essential parts of the response to these crimes, under current law, they lack the authority to address many of these crimes. And until recently—through the Tribal Law and Order Act—no matter how violent the offense, tribal courts could only sentence Indian offenders to one year in prison. Today, Indian offenders can be sentenced to up to three years per offense; but tribal courts have no authority at all to prosecute a non-Indian, even if he lives on the reservation and is married to a tribal member.

So, we proposed legislation that would address three legal gaps: (1) Our legislation would recognize certain tribes’ power to exercise concurrent criminal jurisdiction over domestic-violence cases, regardless of whether the defendant is Indian or non-Indian (thereby partially overruling the Oliphant case). (2) Second, our legislation would clarify that tribal courts have full civil jurisdiction to issue and enforce protection orders involving any persons, Indian or non-Indian. (3) Third, our proposal would provide more robust Federal sentences for certain acts of domestic violence in Indian Country.

Our proposal builds on the philosophy of the TLOA by recognizing that tribal authorities, in collaboration with their federal partners, are best able to address crime in their communities if they are given the tools and resources needed to do it.

We know that dedicating time, energy and resources in this area is effective. Not long ago, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana– the 9th largest reservation in the United States– sex crimes were rarely prosecuted. Only two sex crimes were prosecuted from 2004 to 2009 in Tribal Court—leaving survivors with the feeling that they had no legal voice to fight the crimes that were being committed against them. In early 2010, the Fort Peck Tribes Family Violence Resource Center began implementing a grant from the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women. The tribe developed a Tribal Sexual Assault Response Team and hired an attorney prosecutor to improve legal action involving sexual assault and domestic violence crimes perpetrated against Indian women. In six short months she filed 169 complaints for domestic violence and sexual assault crimes—many stemming from a backlog in the prosecutor’s office. Since July 2010, there have been 22 convictions of domestic violence and one sexual assault case. The tribe reports that this is the first time that offenders have been convicted. As of December 2010, 147 of the 169 complaints were pending court action. These women have been given a legal voice, one they have deserved all along, to fight against domestic violence and sexual assault.

That is a quick overview of some of the things we are doing, but I also want to talk about something else that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. When we have talked to tribal leaders across the country, we have heard over and over that more attention needs to be paid to tribal youth – the future of our tribal nations. It is our responsibility to give them the opportunity to flourish so that they can build and rebuild Indian communities across the country. Educating young people about healthy relationships and lifestyles, education, substance and alcohol abuse, cultural preservation, community development and protecting the environment will have lasting effects on families and communities.

In July, the Department hosted the National Intertribal Youth Summit in Santa Fe, NM to provide an opportunity for Obama administration officials to hear directly from 175 young men and women from nearly 50 tribes in Indian Country. We were thankful for the opportunity to hear directly from youth in Indian Country on critical issues affecting their communities. I have one sample of some of the creative ways we have supported youth who are expressing pride in their past and their hope for healthier futures. It is critical that we give our young people a voice and listen when they speak. Today, it is my honor to unveil a new public service announcement called “That’s My People”, which captures the pride that Native Youth have in restoring and rebuilding healthy and safe communities. This was created by young people at our tribal youth summit. You are the first public audience to view this PSA.

I do have one more item to share with you before I conclude. In 2010, we launched a streamlined approach for American Indian and Alaska Native tribes to apply for funding opportunities. The Coordinated Tribal Assistance Solicitation (CTAS) serves as a single application for existing tribal government-specific grant programs administered by the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), and the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW). The creation of this streamlined process comes in direct response to tribes’ concerns that the Department’s grants were not flexible enough, and that a single application would significantly improve the ability to apply for and receive funding.

Today, here in Ignacio, Colorado, I am proud to announce the Department of Justice’s tribal grants for Fiscal Year 2011. This year, we are providing $118.4 million in funding to nearly 150 American Indian and Alaskan Native nations. Grants have been given to enhance law enforcement practices and sustain crime prevention and intervention efforts in eight purpose areas: public safety and community policing; methamphetamine enforcement; justice systems and alcohol and substance abuse; corrections and correctional alternatives; violence against women; elder abuse; juvenile justice; and tribal youth programs.

We know that we are not, given the funding level appropriated by Congress, able to meet all of the needs of tribal nations and that with every grant announcement, some tribal nations are happy and others less so. As I said before, we agree with you that the funds for FY2011 were not enough and that is why the President has sought an increase of more than 50% in tribal grant funds for 2012.

This year we have encouraged comprehensive safety planning. I mentioned a number of examples earlier about how this approach is actualized—and how important it is to have a holistic approach to resources. The White Earth Reservation Tribal Council (WERTC) in Minnesota is a clear example a tribe that successfully submitted a CTAS proposal that addressed a collaborative response to several problems, requesting a host of grant opportunities the Department offers. Through the CTAS award, the White Earth Police Department will be able to purchase new communication technology and patrol vehicles, as well as hire a full-time community policing officer to enhance existing community policing efforts. White Earth will be able to increase prevention efforts to stem methamphetamine abuse, develop a new Family Drug Treatment Court, and staff a new women’s shelter. Because of Department of Justice funding, they plan to increase community awareness and reporting of elder abuse, and develop new services for at-risk youth.

This effort to streamline the grant process has been held up as an example of how federal coordination can better meet the needs of its citizens. I am thankful to have led this effort to coordinate the consolidation of the majority of tribal grants.  We are not satisfied to end here, however. We will most likely be conducting a formal and informal consultation on the CTAS process in the near future, so that we can continue to improve this effort to streamline federal grant making.

Before I take your questions and answers I want to again say that all of us in the Department are committed to supporting your goals of creating safer and more harmonious communities. I have acknowledged before and will reiterate now that we won’t get everything exactly right every time. We may have disagreements about difficult issues as jurisdiction and resources. But I ask you to judge us by our actions and the successes that have been made. Today, I look forward to your questions and comments about where things stand, what more needs to be done, and how we can work together to take the next steps toward restoring safety and well-being for all American Indian and Alaska Natives.

I ask for your continued guidance as we continue to hold consultations. Thank you for letting me talk to you about our efforts.

Now I welcome your questions and suggestion on how we can continue to work together to serve your needs and the needs of your communities.