Thursday, November 15, 2007

Denver Post investigation finds most felonies on Indian reservations go unpunished

When felonies occur on Indian reservations, only federal prosecutors, often hundreds of miles from the reservations in which they have jurisdiction, can bring the cases to court. In 65 percent of cases, they decline to prosecute, reports Michael Riley of The Denver Post. That leaves tribal prosecutors such as Vernon Roanhorse of a New Mexico Navajo reservation (at left in a Post photo by RJ Sangosti) powerless to handle anything except misdemeanors.

"Already some of the most violent and impoverished places in America, facing a steep rise in meth-fueled crime, the country's Indian reservations are also plagued by a systematic breakdown in the delivery of justice, a six-month investigation by The Denver Post found," Riley writes. "U.S. attorneys and FBI investigators face huge challenges fighting crime on reservations: They are viewed as outsiders who shouldn't be trusted; locations are remote; the high levels of alcohol use among victims, suspects and witnesses that accompany many serious crimes can also make them very difficult to prove, several U.S. attorneys said."

Added to those problems is the lack of professional tribal investigators. As a result, botched crime scenes or weak evidence doom cases from the start. In this report, Riley points to several rape cases that have not been prosecuted by federal attorneys. In some of those cases, tribal lawyers have brought misdemeanor charges but the punishments are weak. (Read more)

In the final article of the series, "Path to justice unclear," Riley explores two possible solutions: "Either pour in significant new federal resources to better fight reservation crime or rewrite federal Indian law to give tribes more authority to do the job themselves -- allowing them to prosecute felony crime, for one; giving them jurisdiction over non-Indians, for another."

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