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Addressing Violence Against Native Women in the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization

The Violence Against Women Act is essential to protecting Native American women.

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee considered legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).  However, the bill that came out of the House Judiciary Committee failed to include a key provision which has already been accepted by the Senate on a bipartisan basis and is essential to protecting Native American women.  

Since 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has been an essential tool in helping to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence.  Since the passage of the Act, annual incidents of domestic violence have dropped by more than 60 percent. Over the years, Congress has continued its commitment to addressing violence against women by working with advocates, law enforcement officials, court systems, and victims in order to build on what we have learned and make improvements to the Act in each subsequent reauthorization.  This was recently demonstrated by the Senate’s VAWA reauthorization bill (S. 1925), introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) which  passed last month with strong bipartisan support. 

The Leahy-Crapo VAWA reauthorization bill addresses many pressing issues facing all victims of domestic violence, including those in Indian Country.  Rates of domestic violence against Native women in Indian Country are now among the highest in the United States and the Leahy-Crapo bill directly confronts this epidemic.    

Tribal police, prosecutors, and courts have had significant success in combating crimes of domestic violence committed by Indians in Indian Country, but tribes cannot prosecute a non-Indian, even if he lives on the reservation and is married to a tribal member.  As a result, all too often, non-Indian men who batter their wives or girlfriends go unpunished.  One provision of the Leahy-Crapo bill addresses this legal gap by providing tribes with concurrent authority to hold domestic violence perpetrators accountable for their crimes against Native women – regardless of the perpetrator’s race.  

Under the bill’s tribal-jurisdiction provisions:

  • Tribes could prosecute non-Indians only for domestic violence, dating violence, and violations of protection orders.  Crimes between two strangers, or between two non-Indians, or committed by a person with no ties to the tribe, would not be covered.
  • Federal- and state-court jurisdiction over domestic violence would be unaffected.
  • Defendants would effectively have the same rights in tribal court as in state court, including due-process rights, an indigent defendant’s right to free appointed counsel meeting Federal constitutional standards, and the right to an impartial jury with the jury pool reflecting a fair cross-section of the entire community, including non-Indians.
  • Defendants could protect their rights by appealing their convictions to a tribal court and filing habeas petitions in Federal court.

Unfortunately, Republican leaders in the House have taken a different approach, with the introduction of a VAWA reauthorization bill (H.R. 4970) authored by Rep. Sandy Adams (R-FL) which excludes these common-sense provisions that would improve the effectiveness and efficiency of tribal justice systems in combatting violence against Native women.   On Tuesday, on a narrow vote of 17-15, House Republicans passed this measure out of the House Judiciary Committee, with one Republican voting with Democrats to oppose this because of the exclusion of these tribal protections.

The Adams bill adds burdensome, counter-productive requirements that compromise the ability of service providers to reach victims, lacks important protection and services for LGBT victims, weakens resources for victims living in subsidized housing, and eliminates important improvements to address the response to dating violence and sexual assault on college campuses.  Additionally, among the most troubling components of this bill are those that jettison and drastically undercut existing and important protections that remain vital to the safety and protection of battered immigrant victims. 

The long-standing bipartisan commitment to ending domestic violence must continue to be supported and strengthened to better protect all victims from violence, abuse, and exploitation.  We urge the House of Representatives to join with the Senate in passing a bipartisan VAWA reauthorization bill that protects all victims.  

Jodi Gillette is Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs and Lynn Rosenthal is the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women.