FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Crime rates in Indian Country are more than twice the national average. But for decades antiquated criminal codes have limited what tribal courts could do.
For example, crimes like child abuse and sexual assault didn’t exist on the books. And, tribal judges couldn’t sentence a defendant to more than a year in jail. But that's changing now. The Hopi Tribe has recently revised its criminal code and as a result is regaining a degree of tribal sovereignty in its court system.
Jill Engel is the Hopi Tribe’s chief prosecutor. A tall blond, she stands out in a roomful of Hopis. She pointed to a recent tribal court case as an example of why things need to change.
A 62-year-old medicine man, working in a remote Hopi village, assaulted and raped a patient last year. The U.S. Attorney in Flagstaff couldn’t take the case, because he didn’t have sufficient evidence to prove force. So the feds sent the case back to tribal court, where the medicine man was sentenced to just three years in prison.
"He was charged with sexual imposition is what the old statute was called, which is basically unlawful carnal knowledge of a woman," said Engel.
Outside the reservation, the average sentence for rape is 14 years, according to the Department of Justice. Engel and several Hopi officials have worked for years to change the tribe’s out-of-date criminal code originally drafted in the 1970s.
"It’s disappointing for myself as well as the victim that the maximum sentence he can face is three years in jail and the $15,000 fine under the old code even though he basically is convicted of rape," said Engel.
Under the new code the tribal court could sentence him to nine years in jail — three years for each count. With tougher sentencing guidelines, Engel said the tribal courts now have greater autonomy to prosecute Hopi crimes. Engel said tribal courts have significant advantages over federal courts outside the reservation.
"We live here," said Engel. "We engage the community here. We have an understanding of the crimes and crime scenes and we have Hopi juries here and it gives us an advantage. There are some cases I believe the tribal courts can more effectively prosecute."
With its new criminal code, the Hopi Tribe is the first tribe of its size prepared to put new laws that give more power to tribal courts into action — laws like the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act and the Violence Against Women Act.
The Tribal Law and Order Act provides tribes with more officers, more training, better access to criminal databases and enhanced sentencing. The new Violence Against Women Act includes a provision that gives tribal courts the authority to deal with non native offenders.
There are conditions, however. Tribes must have criminal codes in compliance with these laws and state bar certified judges and attorneys.
"This makes me proud because the Hopi Tribe has already taken a step to meet those requirements," said Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa. All of this helps Hopi and other tribes strengthen control over the crimes that happen on their land.
"Tribal sovereignty is truly a valuable asset but it also gives us that opportunity to exercise that sovereignty by developing the laws and actually implementing them," said Shingoitewa.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Schneider recently held a workshop with nurses and police officers at the Hopi Health Care Center to train them how to properly preserve evidence and better report crimes.
"Part of what you are fighting is sort of a culture of silence," Schneider said. "It’s a slow and gradual process in which you teach people that you have to come forward with that stuff. I think Indian country given the cultural issues that’s been a slower process but there’s been great progress being made now."
On a map the Hopi reservation looks like a small island in the middle of the Navajo Nation. About 10,000 people make up a dozen villages scattered around three mesas. While the reservation is remote and isolated, the homes in each village are quite close. And Dorma Sahneyah said everyone knows each other’s business.
Sahneyah was a Hopi prosecutor for 12 years. She now works with the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. She said the new legal reforms are exciting progress.
"We know it’s not a full fix but it is the beginning of regaining full criminal jurisdiction," said Sahneyah.
With stronger penalties in place more victims are willing to report and prosecute criminals. Sahneyah said it's important to have sentences that stick. But she said the Hopi community and its traditions also need to be part of the rehabilitation process.
"We used to say way back, there was no such thing as throwing away our men," Sahneyah said. "The meaning to me meant that we worked with that individual to bring them back in a good way."
Sahneyah said men have important roles to play not only in their families, but in the Hopi clan system and keeping the community together.