Federal attorneys: Report shows progress in prosecutions on tribal lands despite budget issues

Associated Press

Federal attorneys say an updated report released Tuesday on investigations and prosecutions on tribal lands shows continued improvement since a 5-year-old study that criticized the Department of Justice for turning its back on reservation crime.

The report from the DOJ states that 2,542 cases were filed in Indian Country in the 2013 fiscal year, a 34 percent increase from when the federal government began its tribal justice initiative in 2009. That's down from the 3,145 cases brought in 2012, which DOJ officials attribute primarily to reduced budgets and a hiring freeze.

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Timothy Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota and chair of an advisory committee on Native American issues, said the study proves that federal prosecutors are "keeping our promises" to improve tribal public safety.

"If you deal with more cases, you're moving more violent predators and drug dealers and people like that from the reservation," Purdon said. "I feel like we're making progress, but these problems are centuries in the making. We're not going to solve this at DOJ in three years with a new program."

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released in 2010 revealed that federal prosecutors had declined 50 percent of American Indian cases in a five-year period ending in 2009. Federal officials responded with a report in April 2013 that provided the first look at government investigations and prosecutions on tribal lands.

The updated figures show that 34 percent of the cases were declined in 2013, compared with 31 percent in 2012 and 37 percent in 2011.

Federal prosecutors say they take the rates of cases declined seriously but they're not always the best measure because some of the cases wind up elsewhere, such as tribal court.

"I think this report tells an important story, but only part of the story," Associate Attorney General Tony West told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "It's difficult to be able to just look at the numbers and come up with an easy or facile explanation for what they mean. They can indicate a lot of things, but I think you always have to look below the surface when trying to think through what declination rates mean."

For instance, West said, more victims — particularly women — are stepping forward to report crimes in Indian Country because they have "some sense of certainty" that the offenses will be prosecuted.

The rates of cases declined were the lowest in the southwestern and northern Great Plains states, which have the largest treaty-based reservations in the country. Arizona brought the highest number of cases at 733, and declined 28 percent of cases. South Dakota was next with 470 cases brought and 26 percent declined.

Among the cases that were declined by federal prosecutors in 2013, 56 percent were because of insufficient evidence. About a quarter of them are referred to another prosecuting authority.

Purdon said the commitment to fighting reservation crime was shown last year in a double homicide prosecution on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota that involved four assistant prosecutors from his office. Valentino "Tino" Bagola was sentenced to life in prison for the May 2011 slayings of 9-year-old Destiny Jane Shaw-Dubois and her 6-year-old brother, Travis Lee DuBois Jr., known to the family as "Baby Travis."

"There was nothing that happened in North Dakota during the year that was as important to me and the office and the people of Spirit Lake as that case and making sure we brought about some measure of justice for Destiny and 'Baby Travis,'" Purdon said.