Violence Against Women Act Re-authorization Bill to Expand Jurisdiction over Non-NativesTweet
The Violence Against Women Act is up for reauthorization this year and a new version of the bill expands tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians who have often gone unpunished for their crimes.
Tribes will be able to prosecute stalking, sex trafficking and sexual violence under H.R.6545, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2018. They can also exercise authority over crimes against law enforcement and children if the bill becomes law.
“Eighty-four percent of Native American women living on reservations experience some form of sexual violence,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), the sponsor of H.R.6545, said at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. “We must protect them.”
The new measure builds on the historic nature of the 2013 version of VAWA. Landmark provisions of the law recognize the “inherent” authority of tribes to arrest, prosecute and sentence non-Indians who abuse their partners.
But Native women and their advocates have been pushing for Congress to address crimes that aren’t covered at this point. A sexual assault committed by a stranger, for example, does not fall under tribal jurisdiction.
“No one should ever have to live in fear for her life,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California), the Democratic leader in the House.
H.R.6545 also seeks to address a growing crisis by requiring the federal government, for the first time, to provide annual reports on the “known statistics” of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. It further directs the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service and other agencies to work together and come up with standard protocols to investigate such cases.
Additionally, Title IX of the bill, labeled “Safety for Indian Women,” includes provisions to improve tribal access to federal crime databases, an issue that arose after the 2013 law. A victim’s tribal citizenship or affiliation could be entered into the systems, a minor change that helps build the case for additional funding and other resources.
Along those lines, H.R.6545 authorizes $3 million a year between 2019 and 2023 for the Tribal Access Program. The Trump administration has continued the Obama-era initiative in order to help tribes use national crime information systems to keep their people safe.
Although only Democrats took part in the press conference on Thursday, passage of VAWA has historically been a bipartisan effort. But there has been little movement on the Republican side to reauthorize the 2013 version, which expires at the end of September, or two months from now.
“That’s why Congress must act quickly to ensure the law does not lapse,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), who serves as the Democratic whip in the House, the party’s second-highest position in the chamber. “We’re urging our Republican friends not to play partisan politics with the Violence Against Women Act.”
The 2013 version faced opposition from some Republicans because of the tribal jurisdiction section and other provisions affecting victims from the immigrant and the LGBTQ communities. But after Native women came to the Capitol and shared their experiences of crimes going unpunished, the landscape shifted and the bill eventually became law.
Before that, tribes lacked recognition of their authority to prosecute non-Indians for nearly 35 years. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Tribe was seen as a major blow to their sovereignty until corrected by VAWA.
Since then, 18 tribes have taken advantage of the law, according to a March report from the National Congress of American Indians. The tribes arrested 128 different non-Indian perpetrators 143 times, leading to 74 convictions and 5 acquittals. Some cases were still pending at the time of the report.
In order to exercise greater authority over non-Indians, tribes must ensure their justice systems respect the constitutional rights of defendants. Despite warnings from conservative Republicans, no one has mounted a challenge to tribal jurisdiction under VAWA.