Thank you, everyone, for the warm welcome to Southwest Colorado and to the beautiful Southern Ute Reservation. First, I want to recognize our host district for this year’s conference—the District of Colorado—and to thank three of the individuals from that district who helped make this year’s meeting possible: John Walsh, United States Attorney and chair of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee; Donna Summers, Victim Witness Coordinator; and Amy Connor, Paralegal Specialist. I also want to thank the many people that I know have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to bring this group together. Finally, I want to extend thanks to the Office for Victims of Crime for their ongoing support of this conference and for victim services throughout Indian Country by way of funding, training and technical support.
I am grateful to the Southern Ute Tribe and its members for opening their community to us. And I extend my sincere thanks to Southern Ute Council Chairman Clement Frost and to the entire council for allowing us to experience firsthand the great work of this community.
I also want to recognize the “other three corners” that make this conference possible: the District of Arizona, under the leadership of U.S. Attorney John Leonardo; the District of New Mexico, led by U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez, who is also the Vice-Chair of the Native American Issues Subcommittee of the Attorney General's Advisory Council; and the District of Utah, led by U.S. Attorney John Huber. These leaders and their offices, working together with Colorado, have helped the department meaningfully demonstrate its commitment to tribal communities. I thank you for all that you do to keep Native American issues at the forefront.
By bringing together this group of people who are committed to Indian Country issues, the Four Corners Region has shown the resilience for which it is known. Just three weeks ago, the Animas River was contaminated, causing Colorado, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation to declare states of emergency. Many have worked will continue to work, on restoring the Animas River for the communities that rely upon it. I am confident that, through ongoing collaboration, this community will overcome this challenge and will continue to thrive.
As many of you know, this conference began over two decades ago with a particular focus on tribal prosecutions and tribal victims. While our focus remains the same, we know that the scope and the nature of the issues that unify us have continued to evolve. Simply stated, the more complex the issues surrounding tribal communities become, the more important and impactful these meetings are. This is where we truly have an opportunity to tackle some of our greatest challenges.
Improving public safety and the fair administration of justice in tribal communities have been and remain top priorities for the Department of Justice. Far too many of our American Indian and Alaska Native brothers and sisters live in fear, oftentimes in their own homes –whether it’s because of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, harassment or sexual abuse. And when a crime impacts a person at home, the place where they should feel the safest, they lose something so important – their trust in people.
I have seen firsthand what it looks like when a victim loses that trust. Prior to serving as Deputy Attorney General, I had the honor of serving for over 25 years at the United States Attorney’s Office in Atlanta, Georgia – starting my career as a line prosecutor and eventually rising up to U.S. Attorney. Most of my career was spent prosecuting fraudsters and corrupt public officials overseeing prosecutions involving sexual abuse, human trafficking and child exploitation. No matter the type of crime – fraud or violence – and no matter how the defendant committed the crime, the impact on the victim was the same: the way that victim looked at the world and the people around them changed forever.
The most vulnerable people in native communities trust us to do right by them and to make their homes safe again. This has been the call to action for the administration and for the department over the past six and a half years. During that time, we have made significant progress in passing legislation and allocating resources to improve tribal safety. We appreciate the tribal leaders, prosecutors, law enforcement, victim specialists, victim advocates and others that have diligently collaborated and consulted with us throughout this process. And, more importantly, we appreciate each of you for what you do every day to help victims survive and thrive, regardless of their circumstances.
Together, we have achieved much. For example, in 2010, President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, which allowed felony sentencing for serious crimes and allowed tribal inmates to be housed at federal prison facilities.
Then, in 2013, President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA). This law recognized each tribe’s power to exercise “special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction” over Indian and non-Indian defendants who commit acts of domestic or dating violence, or who violate certain protection orders in Indian Country. The law went into effect in March of this year, but five tribes were authorized to begin exercising this special jurisdiction sooner, including a tribe in these four corners, namely, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona. To date, more than 25 criminal cases have been charged in tribal courts against non-Indian domestic violence offenders and almost all have been convicted of those crimes.
VAWA 2013 also created new federal statutes to address domestic violence crimes, such as strangulation, provided more robust federal sentences for certain acts of domestic violence in Indian Country. Federal prosecutors have charged more than 200 defendants under these enhanced federal assault statutes and obtained 164 convictions. These numbers include more than 60 cases involving charges of strangulation.
The importance of VAWA was again confirmed in July 2015, when the Attorney General for the state of Alaska determined that tribal protection orders are entitled to full faith and credit and must be enforced, even if the orders have not been registered with state courts as required by state law. This is exactly the result that VAWA intended; we hope that this sets a precedent for all state and local jurisdictions to fully enforce orders whose goal is to protect tribal victims.
While these milestones are meaningful for both victims’ rights and public safety, we know that our work in Indian Country is not done.
The department will continue to focus on enhancing tribal access to federal criminal law enforcement databases. Historically, the ability of tribes to fully participate in national criminal justice information sharing has been dependent upon various regulations, statutes policies of the states in which a tribe’s land is located.
Our focus on enhancing informational access for tribes began several years ago. In 2010, the department started two pilot projects to improve tribal access, one of which continues to serve more than 20 tribal law enforcement agencies.
Last year, the Departments of Justice and the Interior formed a working group to assess the impact of the pilots and to identify long-term sustainable solutions that address both criminal and civil needs of tribes.
I’m very pleased to say that as a result of these efforts, on August 19, the department launched the Tribal Access Program for National Crime Information, also known as TAP. With the support of the department’s Office of the Chief Information Officer and the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division, TAP will support tribes in analyzing their needs for national crime information, including criminal histories, warrants and protection orders. This information serves an important criminal justice purpose, but is equally important in the civil/non-criminal context, in matters such as foster care placement and employment screening, for those who work with vulnerable populations like children, the elderly or the disabled.
TAP will also help to provide tribes with appropriate database access solutions, including a state-of-the-art biometric/biographic computer workstation equipped with a camera, printer finger/palm and print scanner that will access CJIS systems for criminal and civil purposes through the department. In the initial phase of the program, up to 10 federally-recognized tribes will receive these computer workstations and will provide user feedback. This feedback will help us shape our implementation and funding strategy going forward.
On the same day that TAP was announced, the Department of Interior also announced a companion program that provides tribes with national crime information through the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Justice Services, which tribes can use to screen individuals prior to making child placement decisions in emergency circumstances.
Another major area of focus for us continues to be the health, safety [and] welfare of tribal youth. In November 2014, the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence issued a report that memorialized what many of you have seen firsthand–that native children are exposed to violence at alarming rates and that we must do more to protect them. According to that report, we can alleviate the impact of violence on native children by promoting their well-being in their homes and communities by empowering and providing resources to their tribes. TAP is a step forward in that direction. Additionally, the department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention recently hired a tribal policy advisor, who will be responsible for working across department components and with other federal agencies to prioritize and implement recommendations of the advisory committee. Finally, in the area of funding, the department is prioritizing evidence-based, culturally appropriate programs that focus on prevention and intervention for children exposed to violence.
We are continuing to consider other strategies for meeting the needs of children – and all people – in tribal communities. And we know that many of these tough questions are best answered when we listen to you, the people who serve the community.
That’s why I look forward to having a discussion with you today. We want to hear about your experiences, challenges, successes and ideas. We want to learn more about how we can work together to continue to build capacity in the critical areas of tribal safety and victim services.
Our milestones and plans for the future have not been accomplished in a vacuum, or by any single agency, government or individual. Instead, they are the result of ongoing consultation, collaboration and coordination among many who have the same goal – to make the homes in tribal communities safe so that the people within them can thrive.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts, answering your questions discussing these matters with you today. And, of course, I look forward to seeing what we, working together, will accomplish in the months ahead.