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Tribal Justice Targets Outsiders After 35-Year Ban

American Indian tribes are hailing a pilot project to let them prosecute non-members as an important expansion of their justice systems.

Three American Indian tribes are getting the authority to prosecute non-members in domestic violence cases on reservations under a pilot program announced Thursday by the Justice Department.

The program, which grants new authority to prosecutors in the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, the Tulalip Tribes of Washington state and the Umatilla Tribes of Oregon, was hailed by the tribes as an important expansion of their justice systems. A 1978 Supreme Court decision struck down tribes' jurisdiction over non-members, which meant they had to hand those criminal cases to federal or state prosecutors.

"What if you had someone come in and say, 'You can't protect your family in your home, we're going to do it'?" said Chief Prosecutor Alfred Urbina of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, referring to outsiders policing criminal conduct by non-members on reservations. "In reality that's your responsibility."

The Pascua Yaqui Tribe has about 5,000 members living on a couple square miles of land southwest of Tucson on which it operates a casino resort. About 500 non-members live there too and about 500 work in tribal government, Urbina said.

Domestic violence is a big problem for all tribes, Urbina said. Of about 500 criminal cases filed by his office in 2011, more than half involved domestic violence, he said. Data on cases involving non-members is hard to come by, he said, because with no remedy within the tribe, victims often just stay silent.

"That's pretty standard across Indian Country," he said.

"There's not going to be a flood of cases," he added. "But if you have one person who's being assaulted and they don't have any recourse, that impacts our community, that impacts our families."

The 1978 Supreme Court ruling that said tribes could not prosecute non-Indians also gave Congress the authority to override that decision. Congress did so last year under a part of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, legislation that will take effect generally in 2015. Once it does, all tribes will again have the right to prosecute domestic violence perpetrators.

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