TULALIP — The Tulalip Tribes are now one of just three Native American tribes in the country to take advantage of a federal program designed to better combat domestic violence on tribal lands.
In an agreement signed with the U.S. Attorney’s Office Friday during a regular meeting of the Tribes’ board of directors, tribal prosecuting attorney Sharon Jones Hayden was appointed Special Assistant U.S. Attorney with expanded authority over domestic violence cases.
Hayden’s appointment is part of a federal pilot program to allow tribes to start exercising this new authority under the 2013 reauthorization of the federal Violence Against Women Act, which recognizes the authority of tribes to prosecute certain domestic violence crimes committed on tribal lands by non-Indians as well as Indians.
A 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, prevents Tribal Courts from filing charges against non-tribal defendants, even if they occurred on Indian reservations, without special authorization from Congress.
The pilot program has three goals: to strengthen tribal justice systems, to decrease domestic violence on tribal lands and to ensure that criminals are prosecuted in the most effective manner available.
One U.S. Department of Justice study looking at crime from 1992-2002 found the majority of violent crimes against Indians were committed by non-Indians.
While the Tulalip Tribes have more than 4,000 registered members, the majority of people who live on their reservation are not Native American.
Tribal courts can only impose maximum sentences of three years in jail, which means the worst domestic violence cases wind up in the hands of federal prosecutors who often don’t have the resources to take on any but the most serious cases.
In testimony before the U.S. Senate last year, Tulalip Tribal Court Chief Judge Theresa Pouley noted that while the Tulalip Tribal Court prosecuted 493 criminal cases in 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice’s own statistics showed federal prosecutors brought just 606 cases that year in all of Indian Country, comprising more than 562 tribes.
“This number is unacceptable in the face of the staggering statistics of violent crime in Indian Country,” Pouley said in her statement to the Senate.
Hayden has worked for the Tulalip Tribes since August 2012. She’d earlier led the domestic violence unit for the Seattle city attorney’s office.
“I think, in addition to having the support of the members of the U.S. Attorney’s office and FBI, I see part of my role as bringing the values of the tribe, of Indian Country, to them, too,” Hayden said.
If the Tulalip community is better served by a case being tried in Tribal Court, Hayden’s new role makes that a possibility.
Likewise, in a serious case such as murder, which needs to be tried in federal court to ensure a just sentence, Hayden’s new status allows her to appear in federal court on behalf of the U.S., she said.
“I think it’s a much more efficient use of resources we have,” Hayden said.
The other two tribes taking part in the pilot program are the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Arizona. The program will become available to all other qualifying tribes in 2015.
“The Tulalips are one of the handful of tribes in this country with a robust enough judicial system to qualify for the program,” said Jenny Durkan, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington.
Durkan added that Hayden’s role in the tribal court system is also an opportunity to take a more holistic approach to crime in Indian Country because she can bring counsel and a tribal perspective that federal prosecutors might not have.
Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; email@example.com.