FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — American Indian leaders who have criticized the federal government for years over the way authorities handled major crimes on reservations can mark progress with the release of statistics from the Justice Department that show a 54 percent increase in the number of Indian country cases charged in federal court.
Between fiscal years 2009 and 2012, the number of cases prosecuted went from 1,091 to 1,677, according to a Justice Department report released Thursday.
‘‘They’ve taken their responsibility much more seriously than before,’’ said Brent Leonhard, an attorney with Umatilla tribe in Oregon.
The report marks the first look at government investigations and prosecutions on tribal lands. It comes as a result of the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act, which requires the Justice Department to publicly release such figures.
Justice Department officials acknowledge that their work is far from done, but they say the numbers demonstrate the government’s commitment to combating violent crime on reservations where rates are higher than the national average.
Also, the report shows that prosecutors secured convictions in about two-thirds of nearly 6,000 reservation cases between calendar years 2011 and 2012. Of the 5,985 cases, about one-third were declined for prosecution. Some others were resolved administratively or sent to another prosecuting authority and didn’t end up in federal court.
The numbers show ‘‘that we’re walking the talk at the Department of Justice,’’ said Tim Purdon, US attorney in North Dakota.
Arizona, home to part of the nation’s largest American Indian reservation, had the highest number of total referrals with more than 2,000, followed by South Dakota with nearly 1,000.
Still, nearly 2,000 cases were declined for prosecution over the two-year span, a matter for which the Department of Justice has been criticized in the past.