- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2013

American Indian tribal leaders are hoping a new bill that’s expected to be signed into law on Thursday will give them control over punishments for non-Indians who commit crimes on reservations.

Under existing law, American Indian tribes are limited in what they can impose on criminals. They can banish them from reservations, The Associated Press reports. Or, they can charge them with civil offenses — but not criminal offenses, AP says. That’s per a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1978 that prohibits tribal courts from exercising criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians, AP reports.

A new bill could change that and give Indian courts the power to impose criminal sentences. And that’s especially good news for victims of domestic violence, said Sheri Freemont, director of the Family Advocacy Center on the Salt River Pima Maricopa reservation in Arizona, AP reports.

Native American women are victims of domestic violence twice as many times as women who live outside reservations, AP reports. But the majority of those cases aren’t prosecuted, AP says, because the tribal courts don’t have the authority to prosecute the abusers.

“For a tribal nation, it’s just absurd that [authority to prosecute criminals] doesn’t exist,” Ms. Freemont said, in the AP report. “People choose to either work, live or play in Indian Country. I think they should be subject to Indian Country rules.”

But the bill doesn’t come without its detractors. Rep. Doc Hastings said giving tribal nations criminal court authority over non-Indian American citizens sets the stage for a constitutional crisis.

“It violates the constitutional rights of individuals and would, for the first time ever, proclaim Indian tribes’ ‘inherent’ authority to exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian citizens,” Mr. Hastings said in a statement reported by AP. “The Supreme Court has ruled multiple times that tribes do not have this authority.”