Safety on reservations improving, according to US attorneyPublic safety is improving on America’s Indian reservations in the year since Congress passed the Tribal Law and Order Act, South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson told the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee. However, much more work remains, he said.
By: Denise Ross, The Daily Republic
Public safety is improving on America’s Indian reservations in the year since Congress passed the Tribal Law and Order Act, South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson told the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee.
However, much more work remains, he said.
“We are not going to simply be able to arrest our way to safer communities in Indian country.”
Thursday’s committee hearing had a distinctively South Dakota flavor, with Brendan Johnson testifying as the chairman of the Justice Department’s Native American Issues Subcommittee. He answered questions from his father, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. And Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., joined the committee to question some witnesses. While Thune does not have a seat on the Indian Affairs Committee, he was key in writing and passing the year-old law.
The law was passed to try to repair the “complicated jurisdictional maze that often allows severe crimes to go unpunished in Native communities,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. The result has been violent crime rates as high as 20 times the national average, with assault and sex crimes against Indian women occurring at an even higher rate.
The younger Johnson said he has met with young tribal members, ranging from honor students to gang members, and very few feel safe in their own communities.
“The consultations we’ve been conducting have made it clear that serious problems and challenges exist,” Johnson said.
In addition to hiring and training more prosecutors and cross-deputizing more law enforcement officers as directed by the law, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has made it clear to the U.S. attorneys in the 50 states that public safety on reservations will be a priority, Johnson said.
“Public safety in Indian country is absolutely a priority for U.S. attorneys,” Johnson told the committee. “We’re proud of the progress we’ve made, and we’ve learned a great deal. We have a long ways to go.”
Community outreach has been stepped up, with one of South Dakota’s assistant U.S. attorneys staffing an office in Pine Ridge three or four days per week, Johnson said.
“His job is not simply to prosecute cases on the Pine Ridge reservation but to work with the community so they have someone to turn to when they have questions. He also works to ensure the lines of communication remain open between the BIA, tribal police and federal prosecutors.”
Community outreach efforts already have borne fruit, Johnson said.
“We are trying to be aggressive when we hear about emerging law enforcement concerns,” he said. “One concern we heard was the proliferation of the availability of prescription drugs on reservations. We tried to address that concern not just by prosecuting offenders but by teaming up (with local advocates) to conduct community events where unused drugs can be dropped off and destroyed, no questions asked.”
In another example, two prosecutors from Johnson’s office travel to the Rosebud reservation twice a month to review cases with tribal prosecutors there. And, Rosebud’s top tribal prosecutor is one example of cross-deputization. The Rosebud prosecutor has been made a special assistant to the U.S. attorney and has successfully prosecuted non-Indians in federal court for crimes committed on the reservation, Johnson said.
When questioned by his father about challenges still present despite the new law, Johnson said the No. 1 problem is finding the money to train licensed attorneys, especially public defenders.
Work still is progressing, though. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe had 1.5 prosecutors handling criminal cases before the law was passed. Now they have seven doing the job.
Brendan Johnson said the Justice Department has become aware of sex-trafficking problems existing on reservations, and training is ongoing to help law enforcement and community members identify these situations so individual cases aren’t merely prosecuted as simple prostitution cases.
Thune did not ask any questions directly of Johnson, but he did praise the Bureau of Indian Affairs for conducting the “very common sense idea” of job fairs on reservations. However, he said some problems still remain with getting people through the hiring process, particularly when it comes to initiating background checks.
“There is still a bottleneck in hiring,” Thune said.
Spurring economic development and jobs has been part and parcel of the Tribal Law and Order Act, said Sen. John Tester, D-Mont.
“Unemployment on reservations is through the roof. This is a big part of that. We’re never going to see economic growth and job creation as long as Indian communities are unsafe.”