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Justice and Violence in Indian Country

Looking for Answers to Human Trafficking

October 24, 2017


Nearly 6,000 Native women and girls were reported as "missing" in 2016. Between 2013 and 2016, there were only 14 federal investigations and 2 prosecutions.

Human Trafficking – Savanna’s Act

Missing and Murdered Indian Women and Girls

Missing and Murdered Indian Women and Girls Jon Labillois/KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives

On October 5, Senator Heitkamp introduced “Savanna’s Act” (S.1942) to address violence against and murder of Native women and girls. Honoring Savanna LaFontaine Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake tribe who disappeared and was found murdered in August of this year, Savanna’s Act would

  • create standard protocols for responses to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans, with better coordination among tribal, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, and

  • require the Justice Department, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Health and Human Services to consult with tribes about how to improve their access to local, regional, state, and federal criminal information data bases, and to make the information in the databases more relevant to Native Americans.

No one really knows how many missing and murdered women and girls there are in or from Indian country, according to two recent reports by the General Accountability Office. What is known is this:

  • There were 5,712 cases of missing Native women reported to the National Crime Information Center in 2016.[1]

  • Between 2013 and 2016, there were only 14 federal investigations and 2 federal prosecutions of human trafficking in Indian country by the federal agencies that are responsible for such investigations, according to the GAO report.

  • More than 8 out of every 10 Native women have suffered some kind of violence in their lifetime.

  • Homicide is the third leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls between the ages of 10 and 24.

Tribal, state and local police agencies also responded to the GAO’s survey. Of the 132 responding, 99 reported no cases of human trafficking involving Native Women. The 24 tribal agencies responding reported 70 investigations of human trafficking cases between 2014 and 2016. Major cities also responded. Of 61 law enforcement agencies responding, only 6 reported investigating a human trafficking case between 2014 and 2016 that involved at least one Native American victim.

GAO’s reported noted that there are 50 grant programs currently available to assist agencies with investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases in Indian country. Jurisdictional barriers, lack of useful crime data, understaff in tribal justice systems and, sometimes a reluctance (among surviving victims) to report the crime.

Human Trafficking – Responses

On September 11, the Senate passed two comprehensive bills on human trafficking – both included tribal provisions. The “Abolish Human Trafficking Act” (S. 1311), introduced by Senator Cornyn, focuses on a victim-centered approach to the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking crimes, and includes victim protection, victim compensation, and special services for child victims. The bill calls for an improved national strategy to end human trafficking, including “best practices” in creating justice for victims. The bill sets up specialized training in recognizing, investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases, especially organized and complex criminal networks. Tribal governments, tribal non-profit organizations, and tribal colleges are eligible for training grants.

The “Trafficking Victims Protection Act” (S. 1312), introduced by Senator Grassley, focuses heavily on child victims of human trafficking. It updates and extends the authorization of several current laws, including the Missing Children’s Assistance Act, Training for School Personnel, and the 2005 Trafficking Victims Protection Act Reauthorization. Section 504 of the bill directs the Department of Justice to offer technical assistance and training to tribal law enforcement and prosecutor offices in victim-centered approaches to human trafficking crimes. Both bills passed the Senate with impressive bi-partisan lists of co-sponsors.

Funding for Tribal Justice and Programs on Violence Against Women

Funding decisions for the federal fiscal year that began on October 1 (FY2018) are not settled yet. Congress has put spending programs on “auto-pilot” with a Continuing Resolution that will last through December 8. Between now and then, Congress will settle its budget woes, tax cut plans, health care temporary stabilization possibilities, and a long and growing list of amendments and requirements from all directions – including the White House.

So it’s very likely that, at most, Congress will manage to match up the mostly-passed appropriations bills from each committee in the House and Senate, to craft another “omnibus” appropriations bill. The House, in fact, has already passed such a package – the Senate is still working on it.

Committees in both the House and the Senate have stood by tribal programs generally, allocating something close to the amounts allocated for FY2017 or, in some cases, increases. The committees recommend maintaining and strengthening funds for the programs in the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women that are directed specifically to Indian Country. These programs include continued research on violence against Native American women, the Sexual Assault Clearinghouse to provide training and technical assistance for American Indians and Alaska Natives, and assistance to tribes implementing domestic violence criminal jurisdiction. For more detail, see the (lengthy!) account in the August Update.

In addition, as reported in the August Update, the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Committees in both the House and the Senate recommended allocations of a percentage of funds to be set aside from the Crime Victims Fund for Native American victims. The Crime Victims Fund accumulates fines, penalties and forfeitures from individuals convicted of violent crimes; portions of this fund are disbursed each year to state agencies for the benefit of crime victims. For more than 10 years, the National Congress of American Indians and other tribal advocates have been requesting a percentage of that fund to be set aside each year for tribes, so that tribes would not have to request a “share” from states that are contiguous to Indian lands.

On this issue, there are a few wrinkles to be worked out. In the FY2017 appropriations process, committees in both houses provided for such a set-aside (5 percent.) But last April, when the committee bills were combined into a large FY 2017 “omnibus” appropriations bill, Representative Goodlatte, who serves as the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, objected to the set-aside on the grounds that it amounted to “legislating through an appropriations bill.” The language was removed from the FY 2017 omnibus. For FY2018 appropriations, the scene is being re-run. Rep. Goodlatte objected to the set-aside during the House floor debate on the FY2018 omnibus, and the provision was removed.

The Survive Act, which was introduced in both houses during the last congressional session, would provide the authorization that Rep. Goodlatte believes is lacking. In the Senate, Senator Hoeven, chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has now re-introduced a version of the Survive Act in the Senate as S. 1870 (Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victims Empowerment Act). The bill would authorize a 5-percent tribal set-aside from the Crime Victims Fund. A House version has not yet been introduced.

Tribal Law and Order Reauthorization Act

The Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA), which became law in 2010, restored jurisdiction for tribal police and courts over certain crimes on Indian lands, and established a measure of accountability and transparency for the federal Department of Justice in dealing with tribal justice authorities. A precursor to the 2013 amendments to the Violence Against Women Act, the 2010 TLOA affirmed that tribal police and courts could arrest any individual for crimes committed on Indian lands, and upon conviction, tribal courts could impose sentences of up to three years.

Senator Hoeven, as chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has introduced S. 1953, the Tribal Law and Order Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2017, to amend and continue the 2010 law.

The bill also calls for improved Department of Justice data collection on Native American victims of human trafficking; directs the federal Public Defender to designate a tribal liaison in each federal district that includes Indian lands; and reauthorizes several grant programs.

Two particularly interesting features of this TLOA Reauthorization bill:

(1) It makes permanent the “Shadow Wolves” program, operated under the Department of Homeland Security by the Tohono O’odham Nation. Shadow Wolves use traditional tracking methods, combined with current law enforcement technology to enforce immigration and customs laws on the 76-mile stretch of land that the Nation shares with Mexico. Shadow Wolves are credited with tracking and seizing about 60,000 pounds of illegal drugs in recent years.

(2) It focuses in on Native youth. The bill directs the Departments of the Interior and Justice, and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to coordinate with and assist tribes in addressing juvenile offenses in Indian Country, and to consult with tribes on delinquency prevention. It also directs these agencies to find a way to notify tribes when a tribal youth comes in contact with federal, state, and other local juvenile justice systems. Finally, the bill directs the collection of information on Native youth, and research on topics including drug use and available services.

The bill’s attention to this concern is timely, given the increasingly disproportionate incarceration rate of Native youth – which nationally is more three times the rate for white youth, according to a recent report of the Sentencing Project.

Congressional attention to Native youth in the criminal justice system also intersects with a time when suicide is increasingly common among Native youth. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs convened a hearing on this topic in 2015, the seventh such hearing in ten years, noting that suicide was 2 ½ times as common among Native youth as among white youth. At the junction of the two sets of numbers – incarceration rates and suicide rates -- are questions that need to be shouted out: questions about loss of hope and loss of opportunity for too many Native youth.

[1]: Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Fact Sheet on Savanna’s Act, issued October 5, 2017.

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