Professor Barbara Creel recently testified in Congress on the Tribal Law & Order Act of 2009 at the invitation of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee of Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.
The act seeks to bring greater local control to tribal law enforcement agencies to combat reservation crime and to establish accountability measures for federal agencies responsible for providing public safety in Indian Country.
Creel, who previously worked as a federal public defender in Portland, OR, praised Congress’ efforts to address the current gaps in criminal jurisdiction in Indian County, and she encouraged lawmakers to address law-enforcement problems outside the judicial system.
“While I cannot disagree with the need to make the protection of Native American women, children, families and communities from rampant crime and violence a priority, I cannot agree that incarceration alone will address the problem. There needs to be funding and access to effective treatment programs, education programs, job training and re-entry programs for Native Americans,” she said during the December hearing. In a follow-up interview, Creel pointed to serious housing, health and substance abuse issues that contribute to disproportionate crime, violence and incarceration rates in Indian Country.
In her testimony, she also emphasized the importance of right to counsel for Native American defendants facing imprisonment in tribal court and their right to due process of law. For tribes that have adopted the adversary system of justice, she recommended that Indian defendants who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer be provided with a law-trained and federally funded defense counsel, especially in those courts that have a law-trained attorney prosecuting the case.
“A tribe is free to choose its justice system based on its own practices, tribal values, customs, tradition, language and beliefs, which then shape its notions of justice, fairness, process and how to control unwanted behavior and unwarranted danger, risks and harm,” she said. “The sovereign nation can choose restorative justice, peacemaking, sentencing circle, even banishment. However, if the choice is punishment and deterrence in the form of imprisonment in a county, state or federal jail – the order to imprison must be constitutional,” if Natives are to be afforded the same protections as non-Natives.
Creel was one of four witnesses invited to provide testimony during the subcommittee meeting.