Justice News

Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli Delivers Remarks at the Tribal Nations Listening Session
St Paul, MN
United States
Thursday, October 29, 2009

Remarks as prepared for delivery:

Good morning and thank you again for joining us as we start our second day of the Department of Justice’s Tribal Nations Listening Session on Public Safety and Law Enforcement.

My name is Tom Perrelli, and I am the Associate Attorney General. As the Deputy Attorney General mentioned yesterday, we were both very personally involved in Indian Country initiatives during our work in the administration almost a decade ago. I often remark about this being my sixth tour at the Department of Justice, and while my jobs at the Department have had somewhat wide-ranging responsibilities, very little has been as meaningful as my work in Indian Country. My work with tribal leaders on the CIRCLE project at Northern Cheyenne, Oglala Sioux and Zuni Pueblo – a model intended to provide a more comprehensive approach to improving public safety in Indian Country – was in fact one of the most personally fulfilling parts of my career.

And yet we look at Indian Country today, and I share your frustrations that the issues of poverty, violent crime and a lack of resources look very much the same as they did a decade ago. We must do better. The meetings leading up to this Listening Session, the discussions I joined with you yesterday, and last night’s open session give me confidence that we are on the right track to really get things done and put together substantive proposals and initiatives that can lead not only to better strategies for law enforcement and detention, but also for the treatment and prevention programs that make communities better.

This is a Listening Session and we have believed it was extremely important for a new Attorney General and a new Department leadership to hear directly from tribal leaders. This is why we've also included so many of the Department’s component and partners in this meeting.

But from the time I announced the Listening Session at NCAI, I have heard one message from tribal leaders – listening is fine, but we have talked enough, some one needs to take action. We intend to do that.

We view this session as a critical part of the Department action plan. In the white paper you’ve received in your packets, we put on the table a series of proposals not to close off discussion, but to help move it along and to show that we have not been standing still, that we are working every day to come up with solutions to the problems in many of your communities.

But I also want to talk a little about what we are doing – so that you know that this is not just talk. And to do that, I thought I would start with some of the immediate recommendations that I know were circulated to many of you and that are a list of things that you have been advocating for from the Department of Justice and have either received no response or an unwelcome one.

1.                   Request and advocate for adequate funding for law enforcement, tribal courts, and detention facilities: We recognize as you do that more resources are needed to address the problems in Indian Country. President Obama has already taken important strides on this point by getting $225 million for tribal detention facilities in the Recovery Act. And even though the police officers who will go on the beat from the COPS Hiring Program this year – in addition to the Tribal Resources Grant Program – are nowhere close what is needed throughout Indian Country, they represent a critical step for many tribal communities. For DOJ’s part, we have approached the 2011 budget process – our first real opportunity to propose a budget – with the knowledge that resources are critical if we are to improve public safety in Indian Country. In walking around the rooms yesterday and listening, I heard you advocate more not just more funding, but more flexible funding. We hear you and will work to ensure more flexible funding mechanisms in the future so that the funds that are made available by Congress can be used to meet the needs of individual tribal communities, rather than the predetermined programs coming from Washington.

2.                   Support swift passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act: As you heard yesterday, the Department supports passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act and looks forward to working with the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and Chairman Dorgan, and the House Indian Affairs Committee, in making the case to other legislators about why such legislation is critical. But I also want to answer a question that was raised in at least one of the sessions yesterday -- is the Department committed to taking many of the actions we are discussing even if the Tribal Law and Order Act never passes? The answer is yes -- although there are some things -- like expanded jurisdiction for tribal courts -- that we can’t do without a statute, many of the things we have been talking about we can do and plan to do no matter what Congress does.

3.                   Instruct U.S. Attorneys with Indian Country jurisdiction to increase the priority give to prosecutions of Indian Country crime: We have done that. You will hear from all of the Department’s leaders in this room that we view attacking crime in Indian Country as not merely one of thousands of priorities – it is a top priority at the highest levels of the Department and across the broad spectrum of Department components. The U.S. Attorneys who are here and those that are not know that enforcement in Indian Country is an integral part of their job.

4.                   Increase the number of FBI agents assigned to Indian Country: In many respects this is related to getting additional resources for Indian Country, but know that we are aware of and focused on this concern. In the 1990s, the Department of Justice and Department of the Interior determined that a significant increase in FBI agents was necessary to ensure public safety in Indian Country. Our Deputy Attorney General David Ogden was a primary architect of that report and I was charged with implementing it a decade ago. This Department is led by people who understand what is needed and we are committed to improving the current situation.

5.                   Relieve the burdens of the Adam Walsh Act on tribal governments: We recognize the burdens on tribal governments from the Act and continue to work with tribal nations on implementation. No matter what Congress does with the Act, we have committed to be more flexible to allow tribes to implement the Act and to try to provide resources and models that will ease the burden. I know that tribal governments have found this new flexibility and commitment helpful as they move toward implementation.

6.                   Fulfill consultation requirements under the Violence Against Women Act of 2005: We are doing this and as participants in the Violence Against Women consultation on Friday will see, a broad range of Department personnel will attend the meeting, including those from key offices that have not been represented in the past, including the management of the Department. And I will open the conference by directly addressing many of the concerns raised in past consultations.

7.                   Give Tribes access to federal criminal information databases: We have already made great strides in this area; if you talk with colleagues in the room who have been frustrated by this issue, I think you will hear that we have been working aggressively to get access to tribes who are not able to access databases through their states and to find resources to make this a reality. And we recognize that this issue impacts so many others -- when tribes can't input information into or access these databases, they lose out on critical grant funding and are unable to identify perpetrators with long lists of prior offenses who should be singled out for harsher punishments.

8.                   Increase federal prosecutions of domestic violence crimes: This is intimately related to the issue of access to law enforcement databases, because it’s impossible to prosecute a repeat offender if prior offenses are not documented or accessible. We will work on two fronts – ensuring that there is access to these databases and making clear to our U.S. Attorneys that these cases are a priority.

Ticking down this list of recommendations from NCAI shows that we are not standing still; we have heard you and we are acting. In fact, I believe that we are working toward a new era in our government-to-government relationship.

Tribal communities are facing great challenges, and have enormous opportunities. And while we at the Department of Justice have some resources that can help make your communities safer, we also know that it takes more than resources to fight and prevent crime. It takes all of us working together. None of these efforts will succeed if we do not direct them properly and at the issues that matter. We need to do this right, and we are going to need your help. This initiative will only change the way we do business if we come out of it with concrete, specific proposals and take action.

But as we hoped to show in the white paper and as we hope to demonstrate in the coming months, our commitment goes beyond the immediate recommendations. We are committed to a sustained partnership with tribal governments that seeks to build capacity in tribal communities, that improves public safety, ensures the safety of Native women, and builds a better future for the young people who are the future of each of your communities. This commitment is shown from the President on down, who will be meeting with leaders from many of your communities on November 5th as part of the White House Conference. At the conference - which Deputy Attorney General Ogden and I will participate in - public safety will be a prominent feature.

This Listening Session and the White House Conference are only the beginning. They will provide the foundation from which to take action. And taking action on public safety and law enforcement issues is exactly what the Department intends to do. I stand here to give you my personal commitment to work to ensure that – drawing on the insights, guidance, and partnership of tribal leaders and experts – we all make a meaningful difference together. I’m looking forward to working with you, once again, and I hope that today’s discussions with each other and with the Attorney General are productive.

Thank you.

Updated September 17, 2014