Money poses challenge to tribes’ sentencing authorityFLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — American Indian tribes authorized to triple the amount of time tribal members can spend in jail say they’re challenged by a lack of funding.
By: FELICIA FONSECA , The Associated Press
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — American Indian tribes authorized to triple the amount of time tribal members can spend in jail say they’re challenged by a lack of funding.
The increase in tribal courts’ sentencing authority from one year to three years for a single crime came two years ago under the federal Tribal Law and Order Act. But a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday showed that none of the 109 tribes who responded to a survey about the sentencing increase were taking advantage of it.
Nearly all of those tribes said they need more money and technical help from the federal government to provide public defenders, establish or update criminal codes, and have sufficiently trained judges as the law requires.
The report shows 36 of the tribes surveyed are working toward the new authority. Another 34 tribes were unsure whether they would go in that direction, while 31 said they had no plans to do so, the report said. The enhanced sentencing isn’t mandatory for tribes.
Troy Eid, chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission born out of the Tribal Law and Order Act, said tribes across the country are exploring the authority but it will take time to get all the elements in place if that’s the path they choose.
“My impression is that within the next year, you’ll start to see some tribes actually implementing the system,” he said. “Tribes are being super careful. No tribe wants to get this issue wrong; it has to be legally correct.”
The GAO cautioned the report isn’t representative of all tribes. Congressional investigators identified 171 of the 566 federally recognized tribes that received federal funding for tribal courts to include in the survey, but not all of them responded.
Tribal leaders have said a year in jail for any crime under tribal law, including homicide, hasn’t served as much of a deterrent on reservations. Members of the Navajo Nation Council have been debating whether the enhanced sentencing provision would help send a message that tribal officials are serious about combatting crime.
“The bad guys are saying they could get away with anything on the rez, which now pretty much is true,” said Edmund Yazzie, chairman of the Navajo Nation Council’s Law and Order Committee, and a former sheriff’s deputy. “But now the committee is trying to take another look at it.”