The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is one of five tribes to receive financial assistance from the federal government to tackle one of the biggest barriers to justice for Native Americans: criminal jurisdiction.
Tribes have limited ability to prosecute crimes in Indian Country. Depending on who is involved and where the crime is committed, a case could fall to tribal, local, state or federal agencies to prosecute. It’s a tangled web that has led to Indian Country crimes, particularly those committed by non-Native individuals, falling through the cracks. A $450,000 federal grant will help the Southern Ute Indian Tribe get the tools it needs to hold offenders more accountable.
“Receiving this funding will allow the tribal prosecutor to assist in the prosecution of federal offenses in federal court, bringing the tribe’s interest and perspective to the table,” said Lisa Franceware, Southern Ute tribal prosecutor.
The Office on Violence Against Women, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, dedicated $2.25 million to hold violent offenders accountable for crimes they commit in Indian Country, according to a news release.
The funding is tied to the Tribal Special Assistant United States Attorney Initiative, which trains cross-deputized tribal prosecutors to be able to pursue domestic or sexual violence cases in tribal court, federal court or both.
As part of a three-year fellowship, the Southern Ute tribal prosecutor will be designated as a federal prosecutor. Franceware, the program candidate, still needs to be officially selected to be a special assistant United States attorney.
The tribal SAUSA can use the training to improve victim services. The program will also help the tribe work more closely with the federal government, so agencies have the information-sharing necessary to effectively prosecute crimes, Franceware said.
In addition to the SUIT, the Chickasaw Nation in western Oklahoma, the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico, the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in southern Mississippi received money.
“A victim’s safety and freedom from her abuser should not hinge on the jurisdictional boundaries around the crime scene,” said Laura Rogers, principal deputy director with the Office on Violence Against Women, in the news release.
Tangled webThe initiative addresses well-researched and long-standing trends showing higher levels of violence against Indigenous women and lower rates of prosecution for those crimes.
These crime rates have sparked advocacy across North America, and on the Ignacio High School basketball team, as part of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.
“We have to do more to bring this rate down and make more justice solutions available to our tribal partners,” said Trent Shores, co-chair of the Attorney General’s Advisory Subcommittee on Native American Issues, in the news release.
Indigenous women experience about 2.5 times as much violence as their non-Native counterparts. About 56% have experienced sexual violence, according to the National Congress of American Indians.
But many of those crimes are committed by non-Native people, according to NCAI. That’s an issue because tribes have limited ability to prosecute non-Native offenders who commit crime on reservations.
Those limitations come from cases such as the 1978 Supreme Court case Oliphant v. Suquamish, in which the court decided tribes did not have the authority to prosecute non-Native people.
This decision holds unless tribes have special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction, restored in 2013 by the Obama administration.
Cases involving non-Native perpetrators and Native victims are typically under federal jurisdiction, according to Law 360. Tribes typically have jurisdiction over crimes in which all parties are Native.
When cases are under federal jurisdiction, they might not be prosecuted. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice declined to prosecute 37% of cases referred to them by Indian Country.
Franceware said the program allows the tribe to prosecute non-Native offenders, “filling the gap between tribal and federal jurisdiction.”
“The hope is that taking these cases can further improve victim and public safety on the reservation,” Franceware said.