One in three Native American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime and 40 percent will be victims of domestic violence — rates more than double the national average. In addition, violent crime, suicide, addiction and many other health problems are far higher among native communities than the wider U.S. population.

To address these alarming statistics, the Obama administration is working with Congress and the American Indian community to modify federal laws to improve what’s now a complicated, overburdened system of crime fighting on Indian reservations. The administration is also seeking to support behavioral health programs to better deal with alcohol and substance abuse and domestic violence.

The new legislation “is an important step to help tribes and the federal government better address the unique public safety challenges that confront tribal communities,” says psychologist Rose Weahkee, PhD, a member of the Navajo Nation and director of the division of behavioral health at the Indian Health Services (IHS). “It strengthens tribal law enforcement and improves prevention efforts aimed at treating alcohol and substance abuse, helping at-risk Indian youth and working with men and boys to help prevent violence against women and girls.”

Those familiar with the legislation warn, however, that Congress has yet to appropriate the funds needed to implement it. “Many laws have been written at the federal level that are well intentioned, but with no appropriations to implement them, they don’t do anything,” says National Indian Justice Center Executive Director Joseph A. Myers, JD.

Maze of injustice

Crime and health problems in Indian Country stem from a complex combination of an unclear chain of authority, underfunding and misplaced priorities that have resulted from decades of marginalization and trauma.

Unlike most U.S. communities — which have a local police force to handle all types of crimes — Native American communities fall under the authority of a combination of tribal, state and federal law. How much authority each agency has varies by state, tribe, the type of crime that’s been committed and whether the perpetrator is American Indian or not.

On most reservations, for example, it’s the FBI’s job to investigate and prosecute federal crimes, such as murder and rape. But misdemeanors, such as domestic violence, may be handled by tribal law enforcement, state police or the FBI if the crime is committed by a non-Indian, says Sarah Deer, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and William Mitchell College of Law assistant professor, whose legal work focuses on violent crime on Indian reservations.

Regardless of who’s responsible for managing a crime on tribal lands, tribal law enforcement is typically first on the scene. These are police officers who are either tribal employees funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or federal employees trained and paid directly by the bureau.

Unfortunately, poor communication among the tribal first responders and state and federal authorities — who often have ultimate jurisdiction in a case — cause many crimes to fall through the cracks. Deer calls it a “maze of injustice.” She and other tribal law experts argue that it’s created a culture of distrust, in which perpetrators believe they can commit crimes with impunity and victims don’t believe justice will be served.

Inadequate resources exacerbate the problems, says Miriam Jorgensen, PhD, research director for the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy at the University of Arizona. As of the late 1990s, when the most recent data was collected, most Indian communities had fewer than two officers per 1,000 residents, with one to three officers patrolling an area the size of Delaware. Since then, modest investments by tribes and the U.S. government may have improved these statistics, but change would have to be substantial for Indian communities to catch up: A typical American community with comparable levels of crime has between 3.9 and 6 officers per 1,000 residents working in far smaller districts. With such low staffing, many tribal communities struggle to provide around-the-clock police coverage.

In addition, with such low staffing and a high turnover rate, most tribal police are only able to focus their attention on acute criminal behavior rather than systemic problems that may be at the root of most crimes. For example, alcohol and drugs are related to an estimated 70 percent of crimes in Indian country. Many experts believe efforts to curb crime will only work if law enforcement is combined with health, behavioral health and prevention programs to address substance abuse, domestic violence and other issues, including dealing with issues of power and control, says Weahkee. These programs not only need to work with victims and perpetrators of crimes, but need to take a comprehensive approach that include children who witness domestic violence and other crimes.

It will also take a shift toward more culturally tailored law enforcement, says Deer. Tribal police are now trained at local state police academies or the Indian Police Academy in Artesia, N.M. And “especially at state academies, there’s been little incentive or encouragement to provide tribal specific training or to adapt policies and procedures to local needs,” says Jorgensen.

Making changes

It will take a major overhaul of the Indian justice system to repair what’s broken, says Myers. That’s something the Obama administration has begun to consider with legislation that provides more support for tribal law enforcement, crime prevention efforts and medical and behavioral health and prevention efforts. Last year, Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, which was championed by former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and supported by the American Indian community as well as APA. It requires federal prosecutors to be more proactive about prosecuting crimes reported by tribes. The law also gives tribal police more authority to prosecute non-tribal members and provides training for tribal and IHS health-care and law enforcement personnel on how to collect evidence in cases of sexual assault and domestic violence.

In another effort to address greater access to physical, mental and behavioral health care, Congress reauthorized and expanded the Indian Health Care Improvement Act as part of last year’s health-care reform law. The law permanently reauthorizes Indian health-care programs and includes several new behavioral and mental health provisions.

However, many of the provisions in both laws remain unfunded, making it unclear what the impact will be for American Indians. Some provisions of the Tribal Law and Order Act could, though, move ahead without funding. For example, one requires federal prosecutors to be more transparent about cases referred to them from Indian country. They will have to track the cases and report back to tribes even if they decide not to prosecute so victims aren’t left to wonder what happened. These provisions should make prosecution and punishment of perpetrators more likely, says Deer.

In addition, the law stipulates that tribal police training will include better and more culturally sensitive information on the best ways to interview victims of domestic and sexual violence and the importance of collecting evidence to improve rates of conviction. IHS will be required to develop and implement standardized sexual assault policies and protocols for treating victims of sexual assault.

Regardless of the subtle differences that might be included in the training, the key will be to have a standard protocol that will ensure that health-care providers and law enforcement will be trained on the best ways to interview victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and to collect evidence in ways that support prosecution of perpetrators, says Weahkee. If that happens, the hope is that convictions for crimes in Indian country will increase and women will not only receive the care they need but will begin to trust the justice system and report abuse more often.

Whether the legislation can help decrease violent crimes and substance abuse in Indian country remains to be seen, says Myers.

“It’s good that there’s this interest in coming to the assistance of Indian women and children through legislation,” he says. But he adds, “There are still a lot of holes, particularly in terms of funding.”

Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.