Do Indian Reservations Lack Equal Justice?


A recently released report by the U.S. Department of Justice has revealed that a staggering proportion of serious crimes have been ignored on the 310 Indian reservations scattered throughout the U.S. — and the Justice Department holds much of the blame. In a post-Civil Rights Movement world, where all individuals supposedly have equal access to courts and are subject to the rule of law, the Federal Government must make drastic changes to bridge the gap in justice for Native Americans.

On the majority of Indian reservations, felons are only allowed to be prosecuted by U.S. attorneys of the federal government. The law behind this provision, the Major Crimes Act of 1885, was originally intended to fill a judicial need on Indian reservations where tribal courts, tribal police, and tribal prisons did not have the capacity and resources to prosecute such heinous crimes. However, what was once intended to protect and support Native Americans has instead led to an increasing crime rate on reservations, relative to the rest of the country.

The dichotomous jurisdictions have led to a failure by the Justice Department to file charges on half of the murder investigations and two-thirds of sexual assault cases that occur on reservations. It has left people like Lisa Marie Iyotte, a Lakota Sioux woman and rape victim whose case was never prosecuted by overworked federal officials, with no justice. Tribes report that they are rarely told why reservation cases are not pursued by the government.  

Some movements in recent years provides hope. The Tribal Law and Order Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2010, increased the length of sentences that tribal courts are allowed to impose on criminals from one year to three years, and it required the Justice Department to disclose how many Indian Country cases its prosecutors decline, addressing a factor which most likely led to the most recent depressing report. In addition to increasing sovereign justice on reservations, the law is also intended to improve the lives of Native American women, who face a 1 in 3   probability of being raped or experiencing an attempted rape in their lifetime.

The solution to these issues is not so clear cut. On the one hand, tribal reservations should have as much jurisdiction as possible, given their status as sovereign nations. This would lead one to the conclusion that tribal courts should be able to prosecute the crimes committed on their own land. However, with the lack of capacity to handle all court cases, the necessity of the Justice Department and the FBI remains.

Given the federal government’s established jurisdiction over cases, it is unconscionable that so many egregious crimes have remained unprosecuted. The disproportionate number of victims living on reservations who have not received redress in court is unacceptable. Federal courts must be more accessible to all within its jurisdiction, including the victims of felonies and other serious crimes on Indian reservations.

Do we really live in a country with "equal justice under law?"

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