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Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli Speaks on Proposed Legislation to Combat Violence Against Native Women in Indian Country


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you for joining the call today.  I’m Tom Perrelli, the Associate Attorney General at the Justice Department.  I’m joined by Kim Teehee, White House Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs and Lynn Rosenthal, White House Advisor on Violence Against Women.

In anticipation of this year’s reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, the Justice Department—as well as the White House and our partner agencies—have been engaging in comprehensive discussions and formal consultations with Indian tribes, about how best to protect Native women from violent crime—crime and domestic violence which we know has reach epidemic rates. But, I will let Lynn go into further detail later.

What we’ve learned is that, for a host of reasons, the current legal structure for prosecuting domestic violence in Indian country is not well-suited to combating this pattern of escalating violence. 

To offer a snapshot:

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. 

Until recently, no matter how violent the offense, tribal courts could only sentence Indian offenders to one year in prison.  Under the landmark Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, tribal courts can now sentence Indian offenders for 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.

Tribal police officers who respond to a domestic-violence call, only to discover that the accused is non-Indian and therefore outside the tribe’s criminal jurisdiction, often mistakenly believe they cannot even make an arrest.  Not surprisingly, abusers who are not arrested are more likely to repeat, and escalate, their attacks.  Research shows that law enforcement’s failure to arrest and prosecute abusers both emboldens attackers and deters victims from reporting future incidents.

In short, the jurisdictional framework has left many serious acts of domestic violence and dating violence unprosecuted and unpunished. 

Today, we are proposing legislation that would address three legal gaps that require immediate attention.

(1) Because the patchwork the patchwork of criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country has made it difficult for law enforcement and prosecutors to adequately address domestic violence— particularly misdemeanor domestic violence, this 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. In line with the spirit of TLOA, this development would endow tribal nations with sufficient resources and authority to better address violence in their own communities.

(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. We are proposing a one-year offense for assaulting a person by striking, beating, or wounding; a five-year offense for assaulting a spouse, intimate partner, or dating partner, resulting in substantial bodily injury; and a ten-year offense for assaulting a spouse, intimate partner, or dating partner by strangling, suffocating, or attempting to strangle or suffocate.

We believe that enacting reforms along these lines — dealing with tribal jurisdiction over crimes of domestic violence, tribal protection orders, and amendments to the Federal assault statute — would significantly improve the safety of women in tribal communities and would allow Federal and tribal law-enforcement agencies to hold more perpetrators of domestic violence accountable for their crimes.

On a final note, many of you know that next week marks the 1-year anniversary of the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA). Next week, the Justice Department, the White House and our partner agencies will be hosting the National Intertribal Youth Summit in Sante Fe, NM for 150 tribal youth from around the country to engage directly with the administration about important issues in their communities.  In addition, a number of Justice Department officials and U.S. Attorneys will be in South Dakota for a listening session and meetings in Indian Country.  Please be in touch with Jessica Smith from my office to learn more. 

Indian Country Law and Justice
Updated May 8, 2017