How to tackle crime in Indian Country? Enable tribal justice, says a former Justice Department official


WASHINGTON (AP) — A quarter-century ago, the Justice Department had few meaningful relationships with Native American tribes.

Although the federal government worked with state and local police and courts, tribal justice systems did not have the same level of recognition, said Tracy Toulou, who oversaw the department’s Office of Tribal Justice from 2000 until his recent retirement. “They were essentially invisible,” he said.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said Toulou built the office from an idea into an “institution within the Department of Justice.”

Relations with the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes are important, in part because federal authorities investigate and prosecute a range of major crimes on most reservations.

Public safety statistics reflect the serious challenges. Native Americans and Alaska Natives are more than twice as likely to be victims of a violent crime, and Native American women are at least twice as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted compared to others.

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For Toulou, a descendant of the Washington state-based Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, part of addressing this grim reality is increasing the power of tribal legal systems.

For example, tribes were barred by a 1978 Supreme Court ruling from prosecuting non-Natives even if the crime occurred under arrest, making it more difficult to seek justice in many cases. That changed somewhat in 2013 with a federal law that allows tribes to prosecute immigrants in a limited number of domestic violence cases. In 2022, the authority will be expanded to include matters such as violence against children and stalking.

“That was a significant change…tribes were now seen as participants in the justice system on more or less an equal basis with everyone else, which should never have changed,” said Toulou, who was a federal prosecutor in Montana at the start of his term. career.

However, much work still needs to be done.

Tribal police and courts are overburdened and face conflicting jurisdictional issues and underfunding, leaders told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee during a March session that drew more than 600 responses.

Police Chief Algin Young of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota said he has six to eight officers patrolling nearly 1,700 square miles (4,700 square kilometers) against an “influx of guns, illegal drugs, including fentanyl, methamphetamine and heroin, and violent crimes that could only be described as shocking and extremely dangerous.”

“Our people do not feel safe in the communities, and neither do our visitors,” he said.

The challenges come against a historical backdrop of injustices committed by the federal government against Native Americans, including massacres, forced assimilation of Native children into abusive boarding schools, and the removal of many tribes from their ancestral lands.

One of Toulou’s personal regrets is that he does not speak the language of his tribe because his grandparents were sent to boarding schools, breaking the bonds that would have passed the language down from generation to generation.

“We have a unique responsibility to Native American tribes,” Toulou said, in part because of obligations the U.S. has made in treaties, through Congress and other laws. “There is a moral responsibility underpinned by these treaties to support these tribal nations and communicate with them on a government-to-government basis.”

In recent years, this has meant responding to calls to address the crisis of indigenous people who have been killed or missing. Thousands of these cases remain unsolved, hundreds have been closed due to issues such as conflicts of jurisdiction, and many families say authorities regularly fail to communicate the status of pending cases.

Toulou was a leader in the effort to create a federal strategy to respond to violence against indigenous people in 2022, following the passage of the Not Invisible Act and the Savanna’s Act.

He also helped develop legislation such as the Safeguarding Objects of Tribal Patrimony Act of 2021, aimed at halting the removal of historic archaeological remains, and the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, which improved the collection and reporting of data on indigenous crime, expanded the range of punishment. the authority of tribal courts and allowed tribes such as the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians in Minnesota to expand their police powers.

“That really makes a big difference,” said Melanie Benjamin, the tribe’s chief executive. “We have the experience, we have the dedication of our own tribal members and our community members who want to be part of public safety to protect and serve.”

Working within the federal bureaucracy can be like “pushing a big boulder up a steep hill,” says W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in Washington state. But tribal leaders have become increasingly sophisticated in navigating that over the past two decades, he said.

“Tracy has played a critical role,” Allen said, citing Toulou’s help in educating federal attorneys about Indigenous culture, from restorative justice to traditional land management.

The Justice Department also participates in civil lawsuits involving tribes, including environmental cases and hunting and fishing rights.

Replacing Toulou as acting director is Daron Carreiro, a career attorney from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources who is also immersed in laws and policies surrounding tribal communities, sovereignty and public safety.

As he retires to Montana, Toulou hopes for better communication between federal law enforcement and victims’ families, and for more Indigenous people to work at the Justice Department.

Garland said Toulou’s “legacy will be felt at the Department of Justice and in tribal communities for generations to come.”

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