Tribal Law Legislation Takes Big Step

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

A new law aimed at improving justice and safety for Alaska Natives and Native Americans is awaiting President Obama’s signature.  The Tribal Law and Order Act won bi-partisan support, and passed the US House on Wednesday.

The President says he will sign it, and in a written statement called it “an important step” to help the federal government better address public safety challenges confronting tribal communities.

It mostly relates to Reservation lands and Indian Country outside Alaska, but Senator Lisa Murkowski, who sits on the Indian Affairs Committee, says the bill also helps Alaska.

It allows the state and tribal non-profits that employ VPSO’s, or Village Public Safety Officers, to apply for federal grants.  Currently the VPSO jobs are only funded through state or congressional earmarks.  It also lets the VPSOs train at the Indian Policy Academy in New Mexico.

Murkowski says one of the big problems with prosecuting serious sexual assault crimes, both in Alaska and on reservations, is the inability to collect and process forensic evidence.  The bill calls for the research wing of Congress to evaluate the Indian Health Service facilities, and how evidence is dealt with.  Murkowski says that’s a basic first step toward protecting women.

But one item that would have been a big help to Alaska tribes was stripped out of the bill. It would have called for a $50 million pilot project to allow Alaska tribes to create cooperative partnerships with the state and feds. The project would have enhanced the authority of tribal courts to locally address sexual assault, domestic violence and drug and alcohol related crimes.  Murkowski says she’ll look for other ways to advance the demonstration project.

The director of the State of Alaska’s Washington DC office, John Katz, says it was important to the state that Alaska tribes were not given increased criminal jurisdiction as a bi-product.  Most of Alaska’s tribes are not considered part of “Indian Country,” and so don’t have the same jurisdictional oversight. Katz says the state got on board once that was acknowledged in the bill.

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