The Obama administration is offering a sweeping new legislative proposal meant to dramatically curb violence against American Indian women. Congress is being asked to sign on to the proposal.
In a press conference call hosted by the U.S. Department of Justice July 21, U.S. Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli said that his agency, along with the White House and partner agencies have consulted with tribes to guide the proposal.
“For a host of reasons, the current legal structure for prosecuting domestic violence in Indian country is not well-suited to combatting this pattern of escalating violence,” Perrelli said. “There is a lack of certainty of punishment and a lack of graduated sanctions to address misconduct when it begins and as it escalates and gets more serious.”
Perrelli said that federal resources, which under current law are needed to investigate many of such crimes, are often far away from tribes and are stretched far too thin. They also lack the authority to address much of the crimes encountered in Indian country. On top of that problem, tribal police officers often cannot make arrests due to jurisdictional issues.
“Today we are proposing legislation that would address three legal gaps that require immediate attention,” Perrelli said. “First, because the patchwork of criminal jurisdiction in Indian country has made things more difficult for law enforcement and prosecutors… we are proposing legislation that would recognize certain tribes’ power to exercise concurrent criminal jurisdiction over domestic violence cases, regardless of whether the defendant is Indian or non-Indian….” He said this ideology is supported by the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act.
“Second, our legislation would clarify that tribal courts have full civil jurisdiction to issue and enforce protection orders involving any person.”
“Third, the legislation would provide a more robust federal sentences for certain acts of domestic violence in Indian country, in particular we’re proposing a one-year offense for assaulting any person by striking, beating, or wounding; a five-year offense for assaulting a spouse or dating partner resulting in substantial bodily injury; and a 10-year offense for assault a spouse or dating partner by strangling, suffocating, or attempting to strangle or suffocate.”
Perrelli said that reforms in these three areas would “significantly improve” the safety of women in tribal communities.
Kim Teehee, White House Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs, said during the call that addressing violence against women is a major priority of the Obama administration. Lynn Rosenthal, White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, said that three out of five Indian women have been assaulted by boyfriends or husbands, and that one-third of Indian women will be raped in their lifetime. Native women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average, she said.
The proposal doesn’t offer specific amounts of money toward ending violence, but it does suggest that funds should be designated for tribal legal officials. Specific dollar amounts are not included in the 19-page proposal, since it presents authorizing language, not appropriations. The proposal is written in letter form from the Department of Justice to Vice President Joe Biden, who officially leads the Senate.
“In anticipation of this year’s reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the Department of Justice has been engaging in comprehensive discussions, including formal consultations with Indian tribes, about how best to protect the safety of Native women,” wrote Office of the Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich in the letter. “As you know, the Department has placed a high priority on combating violence against women in tribal communities. We now believe that this goal could be significantly advanced by new Federal legislation.”
The proposal was also sent to House Leader John Boehner.
According to Justice officials, the Office of Management and Budget has advised that there is no objection to submission of this legislative proposal from the standpoint of the administration’s program.
To become law, the proposal would have to gain support in both the House and Senate, and then would have to be signed into law by President Barack Obama.