Public Safety & Justice

While the federal government has increased its involvement in tribal public safety and justice, the primary responsibility for public safety still rests with tribal, state, and local governments. The leaders of tribal nations are committed to building strong and safe communities.

Throughout Indian Country, there are numerous tribal police departments and tribal judicial systems that are the ultimate expression of inherent tribal sovereignty. The ability of any nation to enact, enforce, and interpret its own laws and be governed by them is one of the most recognized powers of any sovereign.

At the same time, the federal government often limits tribes’ ability to address crime on tribal lands including crimes committed by both Native and non-Native perpetrators. NCAI is committed to improving public safety within tribal nations, increasing access to justice for Native peoples, and protecting the health and well-being of tribal citizens.

Recent federal legislative efforts, such as the Tribal Law & Order Act, are giving tribes a renewed sense of hope that much-needed improvements are forthcoming in the administration of justice on tribal lands.

The Challenge Ahead

American Indians and Alaska Natives experience much higher per capita rates of violence than those of the general population. One in every three Indian women are raped in their lifetimes. The rate of aggravated assault among Native people is roughly twice that of the country as a whole (600.2 per 100,000 versus 323.6 per 100,000). American Indians and Alaska Natives are the victims of violent crime at twice the rate of African Americans, two and a half times that of Caucasians, and four and a half times that of Asian Americans. According to the US Department of Justice, in at least 86 percent of reported cases of rape or sexual assault against American Indian and Alaska Native women, survivors report that the perpetrators are non-Native men.

These high crime rates have resulted in a dire public safety situation in Indian Country. However, there is light on the horizon: Several recent shifts in law and policy have begun strengthening tribes’ ability to respond to crime on the reservation and to make their communities safe again.

The current public safety problems on tribal lands are the result of decades of gross underfunding for tribal criminal justice systems, a painfully complex jurisdictional scheme, and a centuries-old failure by the federal government to fulfill its public safety obligations on Indian lands. Tribal governments should be an essential part of the response to violent crime in Indian Country; however, federal law has complicated tribal governments’ administration of justice on their own lands. Tribes are forced to rely on federal officials (or state officials in Public Law 280 states) for investigation and prosecution of violent crimes and other felonies committed on Indian reservations. And, unfortunately for tribes, federal and state authorities have historically neglected these responsibilities in Indian Country.

Recent shifts in federal law and policy have given tribes a renewed sense of hope for the future. For example, the Tribal Law & Order Act (TLOA), enacted in 2010, takes a comprehensive approach toward reforming tribal justice systems by empowering tribal law enforcement officials, holding federal officials accountable, encouraging more tribal-state collaboration, and reauthorizing critical tribal justice programs. The Obama Administration has taken an active role in implementing the TLOA and other public safety initiatives in Indian Country.

NCAI will continue to support these efforts and looks forward to future opportunities to collaborate with the federal government in strengthening tribal justice systems and improving the overall administration of justice in Indian Country.

For more information on the following public safety issues in tribal communities, please click below:

NCAI Publications

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