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Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Speaks at the 2012 Tribal Consultation Conference

Bismarck, N.D. ~ Thursday, April 26, 2012

Thank you, Tim, for that generous introduction, and for the strong commitment you and the entire federal team here in North Dakota bring to the Department’s work in Indian country.

It is an honor to join all of you today to discuss our shared goal of ensuring tribal justice and public safety, which are top priorities for the Department of Justice. It was vitally important for me to be here today, because these issues are essential to the quality of life for the men, women, and children in Indian country.

The Department of Justice has an important legal and moral responsibility to prosecute violent crime in Indian country, because under current law, in much of Indian country, we alone have the authority to seek an appropriate sentence when a serious crime has been committed. Our role as the sole prosecutor for serious violent crime makes our responsibility to citizens in Indian country unique, and we take it seriously.

Early in this Administration, the Attorney General launched a Department-wide initiative to improve tribal justice and public safety. He knew that to be effective in this area, we would need to begin immediately, and we would need sustained focus. Many tribal nations face significant public safety challenges, and are struggling to combat staggering rates of violent crime with inadequate resources. When high levels of violent crime go unaddressed, the effects on daily life can be devastating. A lack of public safety and effective law enforcement harms families and children. It can make attending school – or even taking a walk – a frightening experience. A lack of public safety and effective law enforcement holds back business development and drives away the economic opportunities that are badly needed to create a brighter future.

In 2009, the Attorney General convened, for the first time in the Department’s history, a listening session at which all three of the Department’s top officials joined in a shared dialogue with the leaders of tribal nations. The listening session and later consultations and meetings with tribal leaders have been enormously helpful to the Department in developing strategies to respond to the urgent public safety needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

At the same time, one of the clearest messages we’ve heard from tribal leaders has been that listening is fine, but someone needs to take action. We agree.

In the three years since the beginning of the Department’s initiative, we have used what we learned from tribal leaders to develop goals and priorities, and we have sought to ensure that all our efforts are guided by respect for tribal sovereignty and Indian self-determination, engagement on a government-to-government basis, and coordination and cooperation with tribal governments. We have worked hard to improve tribal public safety, enhance tribes’ ability to receive federal support, and strengthen coordination and collaboration with our tribal law enforcement partners.

One important change has been to increase our efforts to ensure that the United States’ Attorneys Offices engage directly with tribal governments and are responsive to their needs. As you know from your work with Tim Purdon and his team here in North Dakota, the United States Attorneys’ Offices have an enormously important role as the Department’s direct link to the tribes at the local level. For that reason, the Attorney General has increased the number of Assistant United States Attorneys working on Indian country crime. The Department has also launched a National Indian Country Training Initiative, led by the Department’s National Indian Country Training Coordinator, to ensure that federal prosecutors, as well as state and tribal criminal justice personnel, receive the training and support needed to address the particular challenges relevant to Indian country prosecutions.

To ensure that our law enforcement efforts in Indian country are as effective as possible, in 2010, the then Deputy Attorney General directed United States Attorneys’ Offices across the country to meet with tribal leaders and tribal law enforcement to develop strategies to reduce violent crime. Because we know that one-size-fits-all solutions do not always work in Indian country, the Department also directed all United States Attorneys whose districts include Indian country to develop specific operational plans to address public safety issues important to tribes in their districts. As a result, today every United States Attorney’s Office with Indian country jurisdiction has a plan to address specific tribal public safety challenges, and each has met with tribes in their district.

Another critical focus of our work throughout the Department has been addressing the crisis of violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women. According to a nationwide survey funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), one third of all American Indian women will be raped during their lifetimes. And an NIJ-funded analysis of death certificates found that, on some reservations, Native women are murdered at a rate more than ten times the national average. Tribal leaders, police officers, and prosecutors tell us of an all-too-familiar pattern of escalating violence that goes unaddressed, sometimes leading to severe physical injury or even death. This is simply unacceptable, and we must do all we can to end it.

The 2010 directive to United States Attorneys made clear that addressing these terrible crimes should be a specific focus of their Indian country work, and the Department is working to bring these cases to justice where we have jurisdiction. We have also launched a Violence Against Women Federal and Tribal Prosecution Task Force composed of both federal and tribal prosecutors, in order to facilitate dialogue, coordinate efforts, and develop best practices on the prosecution of violent crimes against women in Indian country. But the federal law currently provides imperfect tools to address the root problem, and it can only be solved if federal and tribal law enforcement work in full partnership.

To ensure that tribal governments — police, prosecutors, and courts — have a central role in responding to these crimes so that Native women are better protected from violent crime, the Department recently proposed legislation that would significantly improve the safety of Native American women by recognizing tribes’ authority to hold perpetrators of domestic violence accountable for their crimes in Indian country. Under the current legal framework, tribes lack any authority to prosecute a non-Indian who engages in domestic violence against a tribal member, even if he lives on the reservation and is married to a tribal member – leaving the tribes powerless to address the violence before it escalates. Our proposals would also enhance federal penalties for serious crimes of domestic violence. These proposals were based on input and formal consultation with tribes, and we thank all of those here who assisted in their development.

These legislative proposals have bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, and we hope the Congress will pass them soon as part of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. With the addition of these new tools, we hope to finally end the violence facing so many Native American women and girls.

We also have made it a priority to resolve long-standing cases regarding the United States’ tribal trust obligations. Working closely with our partners at the Department of the Interior, and with the leadership of former Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, we reached a landmark settlement in the long-standing case of Cobell v. Salazar¸ resolving claims involving four hundred thousand individual American Indian trust accounts .

Earlier this month, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior announced the resolution of more than 40 cases involving monetary assets and natural resources held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the tribes. Together the settlements total over $1 billion, and they are a significant milestone in the government-to-government relationship between the United States and Indian tribes.

The Department is also working in countless other ways to improve our Indian country work. Rather than funding programs dictated by Washington, we have added flexibility to the grant application process, so that grants meet tribes’ actual needs. We have increased the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s victim witness coordinators who provide support and services for witnesses who testify in many of the most difficult sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse cases. Moreover, to further enhance our understanding of tribal public safety needs, the Attorney General has also established a Tribal Nations Leadership Council, composed of tribal leaders selected by the tribes themselves, which meets regularly with the Attorney General and other Department officials on tribal justice issues.

We believe that these changes are beginning to make a difference for the better. But we also know there is still much work to be done.

Among the many challenges that remain going forward, at least three are over-arching. First, it is vitally important to institutionalize the Department’s commitment to continued progress in this area, so that it becomes a fundamental and unwavering part of the Department’s approach to all matters affecting federally-recognized tribes. We know that to ensure real and lasting change, an understanding of the urgency of these problems must be part of the culture and fabric of the Department. The work of the United States Attorney’s Office, the FBI, DEA and all the other federal law enforcement agencies here in North Dakota – and that of their counterparts around the nation – is laying a solid foundation. We intend to continue it in years to come.

Second, we must work with tribes to develop the capacity of tribal justice systems. Among other things, that takes resources, and in the current economic climate, it will not be easy. We will need to be creative in our approaches. But we know the value of developing tribal institutions, and we know that relatively modest investments in tribal justice systems can have meaningful results. We know, too, that tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and public safety are enhanced when tribal justice officials have the resources needed to effectively enforce tribal laws.

We must also continue to strengthen our cooperation with federal agencies to develop a comprehensive approach to tribal public safety issues. Unless federal agencies are coordinated, tribes’ efforts to find solutions to their problems will be unnecessarily complicated. And because many tribal public safety challenges are linked to issues of education, employment, housing, and substance abuse, the federal response must be collaborative and comprehensive. The Departments of Justice, the Interior and Health and Human Services, among others, are working together on a variety of tribal issues, including implementation of the Tribal Law and Order Act. As one example, last summer, the Attorney General, Secretary Salazar and Secretary Sebelius, signed a Memorandum of Agreement to coordinate in developing sustained responses to alcohol and substance abuse issues affecting tribal nations.

We look forward to receiving your insights and collaboration as we strive to meet these and many other challenges. We must do these things not only because they are our legal responsibility as a government, but because they are our moral responsibility as members of a broad community. This is about more than reducing crime – as vitally important as that is. It is also about peace of mind and brighter futures for everyone in Indian country.

To feel safe in our communities and homes and to know that our loved ones are secure – these are fundamental to the quality of life for every American. Too many in tribal communities are denied those basic assurances. Together we must change that.

Thank you, and we look forward to continuing our partnership.

 

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