Justice News

Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli Speaks at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium Annual Winter Conference
Washington, DC
United States
Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thank you very much for inviting me to spend some time with you here at AIHEC’s Winter Meeting. And, thank you, David [Yarlott] for that introduction. And special thanks to AIHEC’s President, Carrie Billy, who has devoted so much time and effort to the cause of American Indian higher education. As you know, Carrie is a great champion of Tribal Colleges and Universities, and I can tell you her voice is heard at the U.S. Department of Justice.

For many young American Indians, accessing education beyond high school is a challenge, and this challenge is greatly exacerbated by the geographic isolation of so many reservations. That’s where tribal colleges and universities enter the picture. Through a combination of personal attention and cultural relevance, as well as geographic proximity and a healthy dose of financial aid, tribal colleges make higher education accessible for tens of thousands of Native students from hundreds of Indian tribes. Without the institutions of higher education that you nurture, countless Americans would never receive a college education, and all of Indian country would suffer as a result.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you all to join me in honoring the young men and women in this room who are in attendance today because they are leaders in their classrooms—from New Mexico to the Dakotas, from Alaska to Kansas—and who give us inspiration for an inspired, skilled, marketable and intellectually-curious generation of Americans in Indian Country.

I want to first take a step back and talk about why I was excited to talk when you invited me to speak with you. I had the great good fortune to work for Attorney General Reno in the 1990s as the lead person on her staff on tribal issues. It was an extraordinary experience and led me to want to dedicate part of my career to improving the lives of Indian people. Attorney General Reno married her deep sense of commitment to the trust responsibility and a true government-to-government dialogue with her overriding belief that we need to mobilize all partners in a community if we are going to make communities safer and improve the lives of all Americans, and particularly our young people. Public safety cannot be divorced from health care, education, and all of the other factors that make for a healthy community. Only if all of us are working together can we truly and fully serve the people.

I had the great good fortune to work in three tribal communities to attempt to implement those ideas in the CIRCLE project, which sought to bring together whole communities to improve public safety. That’s why you, your colleges and universities, your faculties and staffs, and most of all your students, are so important. You provide the kind of higher education that has been, for generations of Americans, the pathway to progress and success in our Nation. And you bind together the communities, and the community values, that are essential if we are to win the struggle against violent crime.

One of the most important lessons I learned in the 1990s was that if want to implement major reforms, as we did, don’t wait until the 7th year of an administration to start something. Since I returned to the Department was appointed as the Associate Attorney General at the beginning of this Administration, two years ago, responding to the critical needs of tribal communities was one of our top priorities. DOJ has undertaken a comprehensive initiative to improve public safety and criminal justice in Indian country. 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 in tribal communities will be a significant legacy.

I think of our work in Indian country as falling into three main categories: first, institutionalizing the Department’s commitment to Indian country; second, improving the Department’s performance in Federal law enforcement; and third, helping tribes build their criminal-justice and law-enforcement capacity.

As for institutionalizing the Department’s commitment to Indian country: We know all too well that Administrations, and folks like me, come and go over the years. New Presidents are elected; new Attorneys General are appointed. But the United States’ commitment, and therefore our Department’s commitment, to Indian tribes must be permanent. Concern for Indian country and our First Americans must be hard-wired into the Department’s DNA.

That’s why the Attorney General last year established the Attorney General’s Tribal Nations Leadership Council, or TNLC. For the first time in American history, tribal leaders selected by the tribes themselves, have a permanent, ongoing forum for meeting with the Attorney General and other Department leaders on a regular basis, to discuss issues ranging from violence against Native women to juvenile justice, from civil rights to the environment, from sacred sites to tribal trust funds.

Another key goal of our effort to institutionalize our commitment to Indian country was accomplished last year when we officially established a permanent Office of Tribal Justice, known as OTJ. For 15 years, OTJ existed as a non-permanent entity staffed entirely by detailees from other government offices. Now, the Office of Tribal Justice is a full-fledged component of the Department, with a Director who reports directly to the Deputy Attorney General and to me.

A third example of institutionalization is that we are now exploring the possibility of creating a special Indian country component within the Attorney General’s Honors Program. The Honors Program is the main vehicle for the Department to hire entry-level attorneys. It is, for many, the first rung on the ladder of a great legal career. Imagine how inspired your students will be once they know that part of that Honors Program is dedicated expressly to the communities they love – and that if they pursue their dreams of a four-year degree and eventually law school, that a career as an attorney at the Department of Justice may await them. And imagine what the legal world will look like a generation from now, when the American bar contains an entire cadre of young lawyers – both Indian and non-Indian – all with extensive experience working at the U.S. Department of Justice on Indian-country cases. I can think of no better way to make our commitment to American Indians palpable and permanent.

Our second focus is to improve the Department’s performance in combating violent crime in tribal communities. As you know, the investigation and prosecution of thousands of serious crimes every year rests primarily with the Federal Government. This is an area where we must improve. And improvement requires resources.

Just last year, we worked with Congress to deploy up to 33 new Assistant U.S. Attorneys, or Federal prosecutors, to districts with Indian-country jurisdiction. And at the same time, we implemented a community-prosecution pilot project, which allows a Federal prosecutor and a victim/witness specialist to work near and focus on a single reservation. This year, in the budget the President announced just three days ago when so many programs are being cut or held flat, we are proposing a 39% increase in the FBI’s Indian-country effort.

And for the first time, starting last January, every U.S. Attorney with Indian country has been directed to conduct annual consultations with tribal communities in their districts, to develop specific operational plans to improve public safety in those communities, and to prioritize prosecution of crimes against Native women and children. This systematic effort, led by U.S. Attorneys, has never been done before in American history.

Finally, the third strand in our public-safety effort is to help build tribal capacity. This is central to our philosophy and approach. Time and time again, we have learned that communities know best how to solve their own problems and that, given the resources and tools to do the job, they are best suited to address public safety and improve the lives of their people. Continued investment in tribal communities is a critical component of the trust responsibility and will reap significant long-term benefits. We have seen over and over that tribes, if properly funded and with well-developed governance structures, are best situated to improve public safety in their own communities.

This progress will only accelerate with the passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010. The Act contains many excellent reforms, which is why this Administration strongly supported its enactment by Congress. Its provisions that grant tribal courts more authority if they meet certain standards of due process that are set forth in the new law create a tremendous opportunity – a chance for explosion of development in tribal judicial systems, which will benefit communities in innumerable ways.

And we are doubling down on investment. As I noted before, at a time when so many programs are being held flat or cut, we are asking Congress for an increase in our tribal grant programs of 47%. This is the one issue that I regularly engage our appropriators on and have worked hard to educate them on the needs of tribal communities and the enormous impact that modest increases in resources can have.

Now, here is where I see great synergies between the Department of Justice and the tribal colleges and universities. As tribal criminal-justice sector institutions develop – whether we’re talking about tribal police departments, tribal prosecutors, tribal courts, tribal detention facilities, or tribal reentry programs – at every step of the way, I see a potential partnership between the Department of Justice and tribal colleges and universities and their faculties and students.

The Department can provide immense professional expertise in all of these areas. But it cannot provide the kind of local, community-based knowledge that is the linchpin to successful programs in the criminal-justice sector. You and your institutions of higher education, however, can do exactly that.

Perhaps the most obvious example of how to contribute to this effort is to consider offering courses, and even majors, in relevant fields. I understand that there is a program in Law Enforcement at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Minnesota, and a Corrections program at Bay Mills Community College in Michigan. Students with formal training in these fields will doubtless become the leaders in tribal criminal justice in the years and decades ahead.

Another example is one that, I would imagine, touches every single one of the three-dozen-plus colleges and universities represented here today. Every one of your institutions teaches sociology or political science or economics or statistics. Those courses teach the very skills that are needed to evaluate and thereby improve tribal public-safety programs. Whether it’s figuring out how to quickly and efficiently dispatch tribal officers to the scene of a crime or how to design a program to keep teenagers on the basketball courts and off of drugs, the skill set taught in your courses – how to gather data, how to assess it, how to draw conclusions from real-world trial-and-error – will be critically important. We look forward to partnering with your professors and your students as we work together to strengthen tribal justice programs.

Whether it’s an 18-year-old who wants to be the first person in his family to attend college and become a teacher, or a 32-year-old single mother taking evening courses in nursing, or a tribal elder who enjoys participating in courses on tribal history and language, the threads that weave your colleges together with your communities are especially strong and resilient.

We look forward to working with you on all these efforts. But it can only succeed with the support of folks like you – presidents of tribal colleges and universities, college administrators, faculty, and staff, and above all, new generations of Native American students.

Updated September 17, 2014