I’m incredibly pleased to be able to pass along some great news for a change — the Tribal Law and Order Act, which I had previously urged all of you to support, and which the infinitely awesome Pretty Bird Woman House vocally approves, has passed both houses of Congress and it set to be signed by President Obama today.
A measure designed to ease stubbornly high rates of violent crime, including rape and sexual assault, within Indian reservations will be signed into law by President Obama on Thursday.
Advocates of the Tribal Law and Order Act, which took three years to put together and passed the Senate last week, say it will ensure that more crimes, including murders and serious assaults, are reported and prosecuted amid worries that many cases go unpunished.
The measure gives tribal courts tougher sentencing powers and sets stricter rules to gather and collect more data on crimes. Special U.S. prosecutors will be appointed to tackle what advocates of the law describe as an epidemic of violence.
The president is due to sign the bill into law during a ceremony at the White House on Thursday afternoon.
In the U.S., there is currently an epidemic of sexual violence against Native American women — the rate of rape against Native women is 2.5 that of all other women in the U.S., and more than one in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime. While some perpetrators are indeed Native themselves, a vast majority of the rapists (86%) are non-Natives, usually white men, who have come onto Native land. Until now, such rapists have often been able to rape with impunity, not only because of the socially marginalized social status of their victims (something rapists tend to seek out), reluctance by victims to report, and poor handling of cases by police — all serious problems and facets of this issue on their own — but also because of confusion and loopholes regarding legal jurisdictions for non-Native perpetrators on Native land.
The Tribal Law and Order Act works to correct several of these problems:
Under the new rules, the Justice Department will have to maintain data on the cases it does not pursue to prosecution. It will also have to share with tribal justice officials any evidence in cases not prosecuted.
The act also aims to clear up jurisdictional loopholes that allow some crimes to slip through the net. It will allow selected tribal police officers to enforce federal laws on Indian lands, whether or not the offender is Indian.
The National Congress of American Indians says it hopes the measure will mean that more sexual assaults carried out on the reservations by non-tribal members will be punished.
Tribal courts will be allowed to sentence offenders to up to three years in prison, increased from the current one-year maximum sentence.
All tribal and federal police officers in the reservations will receive extra training to interview sexual-assault victims and collect evidence from crime scenes.
That the new law will not only provide stronger oversight to U.S. federal handling of sexual violence against Native women, but also strengthens the power of tribal officers and justice systems to enforce the law is absolutely vital, for several reasons. Firstly, victims may simply not believe in U.S. models of justice, holding their faith rather in their tribal systems. Secondly, the U.S. justice system has been known, as has been extensively documented on this very blog, to treat rape victims very, very poorly. The more marginalized a victim is, whether on the basis of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, class, or other identifier, the worse treatment they are likely to receive. Further, the U.S. government has done more harm and violence to Native peoples than can be easily or adequately expressed. It makes sense that rape victims would not trust the U.S. justice system to fairly and reasonably handle their case, and may trust their own tribal systems to treat them better. It also makes sense that victims would not trust the U.S. government to do any harm to them as Native people, and would better trust their own tribal systems to better respect their rights and humanity.
Most importantly, whatever a victim’s reasons and whatever a victim’s inclinations, it’s my understanding that the law will give them something of a choice regarding how to proceed.
The sad news is that while this should be a bill that absolutely everyone who’s not a rapist can get behind, 92 Republicans actually voted against the bill in the House. Interesting that they chose a vote regarding the physical safety of Native women and their ability to find justice for the violent crimes committed against them to make a “statement” about legislative procedures. At least we know where their priorities lie.