Tribal Law/Courts

Laws Create Tribal Justice Gap


Federal laws and court precedents limit the authority of tribes to prosecute crimes, creating a “justice gap” on reservations, according to a Wall Street Journal report (sub. req.).

Tribes can impose no more than a one-year sentence for any crime, and their jurisdiction is limited to American Indians. Federal prosecutors may prosecute serious crimes committed on reservations, but they are often reluctant to do so because of long distances that need to be traveled and high costs.

The newspaper cites Justice Department data supplied to Syracuse University that shows U.S. attorneys prosecuted only 30 percent of tribal-land crimes referred to them. In other cases, the department prosecutes in 56 percent of referrals.

Domestic assaults are a particular problem, especially since many of the assaults are committed by non-Indians on the reservations. In many instances victims don’t even bother to file a police report.

Prosecutor James Kilbourne told the newspaper about Jon Nathaniel Crowe, who threatened to kill an ex-girlfriend, poured kerosene into his wife’s mouth, and hit her with an ax handle.

“We put him away twice for a year, that’s all we could do,” says Kilbourne, who is a prosecutor for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. “Then he got out and committed the same crime again.”

Crowe was finally prosecuted in federal courts due to a new federal law that allows jurisdiction after two domestic assault convictions. He pleaded guilty to assault on Friday.

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