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Law could lead to federal prosecutions of reservation crime

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Some Indian tribes in Minnesota are hoping a relatively new federal law will help reduce high reservation crime rates.

The Tribal Law and Order Act would allow for more federal prosecutions of reservation crimes. But some county prosecutors aren't eager to have federal officials handle cases that have traditionally been theirs.

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Justice Department statistics show just how dangerous Indian reservations can be. Crime rates are more than twice as high on reservations as they are elsewhere. American Indian women experience violent crime rates three and a half times the national average. In 2008, tribal members accounted for nearly half of the juveniles in the federal courts system.

St. Paul attorney Patrick Noaker has seen the brutal effects of crime on the reservation first hand. He has represented Cody St. John in a series of civil lawsuits stemming from a brutal 2006 beating St. John suffered on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation.

The two men who attacked St. John as he walked home from a party wanted him to join a gang, Noaker said.

By the time it was over, St. John had been dragged behind a car and beaten, with the letters "V.L." - for Vice Lords - carved into his body.

"To this day there's still gravel that's coming out of the skin in his back," Noaker said. "And that's six years ago."

One of the men, Keith Reynolds, pleaded guilty to third-degree felony assault in Mille Lacs County Court and served a year and a day for the crime. The case against the other man was thrown out for lack of probable cause.

Noaker said county prosecutors did their job by handling an assault case over which they had jurisdiction. But he said authorities need a more comprehensive system to investigate and prosecute crime on the reservation.

"If there was somebody in the position to be considering the issue of the drug trade on the Mille Lacs Reservation, for example, or issues of violence and intimidation, systemically on the reservation, I believe that person or entity would have approached the prosecution of this case differently," he said.

The two-year-old federal law could allow federal attorneys and law enforcement back onto Indian lands and reservations in six states, including Minnesota and Wisconsin. Federal officials would once again be able to prosecute cases that right now fall outside their jurisdiction, including child abuse and assaults.

The law still keeps the state involved, but reverses legislation Congress passed in the 1950s that removed some tribal lands from federal jurisdiction in six states, including Minnesota and Wisconsin. Under the new law tribal, state and federal law enforcement agencies and courts would review criminal cases, determining the best venue for various crimes.

To opt in, tribes must apply to the Justice Department. The White Earth Nation in Northwestern Minnesota could be the first in the country to take advantage of the law later this year.

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in central Minnesota, where Cody St. John was assaulted, is also considering the law.

Mille Lacs County Attorney Jan Jude expects the band will apply. But she said from her perspective it's not necessary.

"We aggressively prosecute crime in Mille Lacs County ... and there's certainly adequate law enforcement," Jude said.

Jude's office was responsible for prosecuting the Cody St. John case. She doubts that federal officials could have done better, considering St. John could only identify one of his attackers.

She's concerned that if the Mille Lacs Band signs onto the act, it will only make an already difficult job more challenging.

"In a county where we already have jurisdictional issues that go on, to then throw in another governmental agency and make it a tri-jurisdictional system, is just going to complicate things more," Jude said.

But on the White Earth reservation, tribal attorney Joe Plummer, said in planning meetings the opposite is happening.

"The communication between the counties and tribe is just greatly enhanced because of this," he said. "Before ... it was more just kind of like as needed type of basis. There was nothing planning for the future about efficiencies, law enforcement resources, nothing like that."

The Justice Department is expected to name the White Earth Nation as the first to fall under the new law this summer. The project should be up and running by the end of the year.

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