Joe Gratz via Flickr
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation has been piloting a program for the past year, prosecuting non-Indians for domestic violence committed on sovereign reservation land. Now other tribes around the country have the opportunity to do the same.
Until now, Native American tribes in the U.S. have had very limited jurisdiction to prosecute non-natives, other than minor civil cases. For criminal cases, “they couldn’t prosecute anything,” says Brent Leonhard, attorney for the Office of Legal Council for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation.
But when the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized in 2013, it allowed a few Indian tribes to go after non-natives if they domestically abused a tribal member on Indian land.
Leonhard was part of the team of legal experts that pushed for that change. “It’s a real problem being able to ensure public safety in Indian country if the tribe isn’t capable of prosecuting half the population,” which is the non-native makeup of the Umatilla Reservation.
So far, it’s been “very, very successful,” says Leonhard. “I’m very happy with the way things are playing out.” Four cases have been filed, resulting in three guilty pleas so far. That’s double the amount of cases ever prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s office in one year, he says.
Over 80 percent of the cases involving non-Indian domestic violence went unreported when the federal government had jurisdiction, according to Leonhard. The Umatilla tribes are hoping that boosting the number of prosecutions and trying the cases on the reservation will increase the number of victims coming forward.
However, Leonhard says that the tribes still need broader jurisdiction. He’s worried about domestic abuse cases where children are involved, because under the current law, “violence against the children could not be prosecuted by the tribe.”
The prosecutorial power is still limited to a handful of tribes that have met conditions set by the new law, but dozens of others are hoping to follow the path set out by the Umatilla tribes.