FARMINGTON — Criminal justice officials from area American Indian tribes met with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., on Thursday at San Juan College to discuss and critique a new law intended to give tribal agencies more authority to fight crime.

While prosecutors, public defenders and law enforcement officials from the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache and Zuni tribes applauded the efforts of The Tribal Law and Order Act, they also expressed concern that it will lack the teeth necessary to achieve justice in tribal lands.

"We see it as an unfunded mandate," said Rosa Maria Cortez, senior attorney with the Navajo Nation Public Defender's Office.

The act — signed into law by President Barack Obama on July 29 and developed in response to concerns that violent crimes on tribal lands remain nearly twice as high as the national average — gives greater local control to tribal authorities, improves communication among tribal and federal agencies and requires greater training among officers when dealing with issues of domestic violence.

Specifically, the act gives tribal police access to the federal database of criminal histories, improves training for tribal police officers, expands the sentencing authority of tribal courts from one to three years and requires federal officers to turn over evidence to tribal authorities if they decide not to prosecute a crime.


"The declination rates of sexual assault continues to be over 50 percent," Navajo Nation Chief Prosecutor Bernadine Martin said of the U.S. Attorney's Office's decision not to prosecute cases. "Many of these can be prosecuted in tribal court."

Martin questioned how certain aspects of the law would be implemented, including communication among tribal and federal governments.

"The FBI comes to our reservations and just takes people," decides not to prosecute and returns suspects without alerting tribal authorities, Martin said.

"What they do affects our population," she said.

While the increase in sentencing authority is a big step toward alleviating the large number of unprosecuted crimes by the U.S. Attorney's Office, such an increase also will mandate additional resources.

"If our tribe decides to implement the sentencing guidelines, we are going to need four times the resources we have now," said Kathleen Bowman, a Navajo Nation public defender.

Additional resources would include more attorneys both in the public defender's office and the prosecutor's office, more victim advocates, more judges and more jail space, Bowman said.

Chief Justice Herb Yazzie applauded the law's efforts but pleaded with Bingaman that the funding should focus significantly on treatment and rehabilitation efforts as opposed to only incarceration. Part of the law allows for the reauthorization of existing programs such as the Indian Alcohol and Substance Abuse Act.

"There are no treatment centers," Yazzie said, and people, including children, are sent off the reservation for treatment. Lack of treatment for offenders and families compounds issues of violent crime, he said.

Members of the panel also raised concerns over vast drug issues that increasingly plague remote tribal lands.

"To address those issues — domestic violence, violence against women and violence against children — we must address the drug and alcohol issues," Jicarilla Apache Police Chief Leeson Valenzuela said.

Valenzuela and Zuni Police Chief Timothy Trimble also emphasized the need for improved training for tribal police officers, training that would increase the ability to prosecute criminals through better investigations and evidence collection.

Officials reported more than 900 incidents of violent crimes in 2009 and nearly half of that number were reported through June 2010, according to the Navajo Nation Police Department annual report.

"We're lawless lands," Martin said.

The new laws give tribal agencies the opportunity to see justice if it is implemented appropriately and fully supported, she said.

Elizabeth Piazza: