Monday, June 15, 2009

Justice Dept. Focusing On Indian Country Crime

Justice Dept. Focusing On Indian Country Crime
By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 15, 2009

Justice Department leaders, responding to pleas from lawmakers and community groups, are training their attention on efforts to reduce crime and substance abuse on land controlled by the nation's roughly 560 Native American tribes.

Federal law enforcement officials investigate and prosecute the bulk of serious criminal activity in Indian territory. But workers responsible for policing crime on reservations, where domestic violence and drug-fueled offenses have been on the rise, are overwhelmed and "grossly underfunded," according to a memo submitted by the National Congress of American Indians as part of the presidential transition effort.

Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, the department's third in command, will appear at a conference hosted by the National Congress of American Indians in Niagara Falls, N.Y., today to address the issues and promise more grant money for youth mentoring, victim assistance and crime prevention.

Under this year's stimulus package, the department already secured more than $248 million for building and renovating correctional facilities, collecting better data on criminal offenses, and limiting violence against women on Indian land.

The problems are vast, according to interest groups and congressional investigative reports. Fewer than 3,000 tribal and federal agents must cover 55 million acres of territory, and many prisons for adults and juvenile offenders are overcrowded and unsafe.

The violent-crime rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives is more than 2 1/2 times the national figure, according to department statistics. Activists complain that overburdened federal prosecutors decline to act in more than two-thirds of the cases they handle.

Justice officials will take a prominent role to resolve what they call a growing public safety crisis, culminating later this year with a listening session to be led by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

The issues already are familiar to senior leaders including Perrelli, who launched a pilot project on Indian country during his time at Justice in the Clinton administration, and new Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden, who supervised a similar portfolio during his previous stint at the department. Last week, Ogden flew to Salt Lake City to help announce the arrest of nearly two dozen people for allegedly pillaging artifacts from tribal lands in the Southwest.

In an interview, Perrelli called his earlier efforts on Indian country among the most "fulfilling" of his career. "This is for me very exciting and something I really want to spend a lot of time on," he added.

Justice Department officials do not anticipate significant new federal hiring for the effort this year. Instead, they will ask prosecutors in states with large native populations to meet regularly on the issues and will seek to establish permanently an Office of Tribal Justice at headquarters.

Later this month, Perrelli is to testify before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on legislation proposed by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.). The bill would give federal officials more tools to solve crimes and share information with their tribal counterparts.

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