Indian legal reform uneven

Despite ’10 law, changes come slowly for tribes

Robin Sanchez hugs her child, Nicholle, 5, while discussing domestic violence in her home in Acoma Pueblo, N.M.
Robin Sanchez hugs her child, Nicholle, 5, while discussing domestic violence in her home in Acoma Pueblo, N.M.Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press

ACOMA PUEBLO, N.M. — In a desperate attempt to make it to the front door, Robin Sanchez crawled across the living room floor. Her former husband, just out of jail and intoxicated, used a wooden slat from one of the kitchen chairs to beat her.

She recalls how she was about to open the door when a loud crack resonated across her head. Blood gushed down her face as she heard her 3-year-old daughter cry: ‘‘Daddy, don’t be mean to Mommy.’’

That September night in 2011 ended outside their home on the Acoma reservation in western New Mexico with tribal police officers, guns drawn, ordering Kirby Sanchez to release the mother of his child from a chokehold.


Scenes like this are far too common in Indian country, where violent crime rates on some reservations are 20 times the national average. Women are especially vulnerable; federal statistics show that nearly half of all American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced physical violence, sexual assault, or stalking by an intimate partner and 1 in 3 will be raped in her lifetime.

That is why hope was high in 2010 when President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, an overhaul to give tribal leaders more authority to fight crime on reservations.

Among other things, the law expanded the sentencing authority of tribal courts, allowed for the appointment of special US attorneys to prosecute violent crimes on reservation land, and revamped training for reservation police officers.

But 2½ years later, implementation of the law remains a mixed bag on reservations nationwide.

From New Mexico to Mississippi, law officers, prosecutors, health care workers, and victim advocates have been trying to chip away at the problem, but former US Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who was the chief sponsor of the bill, admits change is slow.


‘‘It can be life or death for people,’’ Dorgan said.

Many of the 566 federally recognized tribes have blamed a lack of funding for not moving ahead more quickly. While the federal government is providing some money for new programs, tribes are responsible for funding other elements of the law. In other cases, tribal governments are still deliberating exactly how to institute the new measures, which require rewriting tribal constitutions or criminal codes.

The Hopi of Arizona were among the first in the nation to raise criminal sentences under the law. The tribe spent 18 months updating criminal codes to create a new class of felonies that could result in more jail time for offenders.

Few tribes have put together all the pieces required to boost jail time, but progress is being made on other fronts. The Southern Utes in Colorado are now contracting with the federal government to hold detainees. On South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux reservation, tribal officials worked with the US attorney’s office to create a diversion program to keep juveniles out of trouble.

In Montana, special teams of tribal and federal officials were established last summer to investigate sexual assault cases.

The FBI has added a dozen victim specialists, and about 30 more US prosecutors are working in tribal areas than there were four years ago. In New Mexico, for example, an assistant US attorney is stationed in Gallup, near the Navajo nation.

Nationally, more than 2,000 criminal justice professionals have been part of a US Department of Justice training initiative to improve prevention, investigation, and prosecution of reservation crime. And the Indian Health Service last year more than tripled the number of workers trained to respond to sexual assault cases and conduct forensic exams.


At the Acoma Pueblo, officials started a new wellness program to rehabilitate repeat offenders who are on probation by monitoring their alcohol use; providing substance abuse and mental health counseling; and helping them earn GED certificates or return to college.

‘‘We’re changing our jail to more of a healing center and it’s working,’’ Acoma public safety director Glenn Kelsey said.

Tribal officers are also funneling more cases that involve habitual offenders such as Kirby Sanchez to US courts, where punishments can be stiffer.