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Senate Indian Affairs Committee Discusses Tracking Sex Offenders

On July 17, 2008, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing on tracking sex offenders in Indian country and tribal implementation of the Adam Walsh Act (P.L. 109-248). The Act makes it a federal offense for an individual who has been convicted of a sex offense in tribal court not to register in the jurisdiction where the offender works, lives, and attends school. The law also requires all jurisdictions to include tribal court convictions for qualifying sex offenses in their registries, and gives federally recognized Indian tribes until July 27, 2008, to create mechanisms to comply with these requirements.

Chair Byron Dorgan (D-ND) stated, “The Adam Walsh Act is not necessarily complete in every respect, but is an act that moves us forward in trying to protect people against violent sex offenders. This will reject any notion that Indian lands are a safe haven for criminals…[Yet] despite the significant impact of the Adam Walsh Act on Indian tribes…there was not significant consultation with Indian tribes.”

Isidro Lopez, vice-chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation in Sells, Arizona, stated, “We understand that the level of tribal-state cooperation we experience is not necessarily the norm throughout Indian country. At national meetings, tribes in other parts of the nation report they not only lack access to, for example, state crime lab services, but [also] are denied access to state criminal databases and other critical law enforcement tools that we all need to protect the general public from the same offenders. We all know offenders are not limited by invisible jurisdictional boundaries and the Adam Walsh Act can only truly succeed if states fully include tribes as fellow governments fighting crime together.”

Robert Moore, tribal councilman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in Mission, South Dakota, explained that “The Adam Walsh Act, passed without tribal consultation or comment, represents a significant assault on tribal sovereignty…While federal law predating the Adam Walsh Act provided national standards for state sex offender registration programs, it made no comparable provision concerning sex offenders who are convicted in tribal courts, or who enter the jurisdiction of a tribe following conviction in some other jurisdiction. As a result, there has been a lack of consistent means for tribal authorities to be notified of sex offenders entering their jurisdictions, to track those offenders, or to make information about those offenders available to members of tribal communities for the protection of themselves and their family.”

In addressing possible avenues for remedying the problems in implementing the Adam Smith Act among Indian tribes, Jacqueline Johnson, executive director at the National Congress of American Indians, stated, “I’m concerned about the tribes that don’t know what the rules of the game are at this point…the states have had systems and resources to develop these systems for [years], but tribes aren’t there. To get almost of all of [the tribes] to opt-in says that they care about this issue…but we need the resources and collaboration. And we, as a [tribal] government, should have the same rights as other governments to have access to the same [criminal] databases as the FBI. The structural defects of the statute require additional congressional action in order to make the goal of a seamless sex nationwide sex offender tracking system a reality.”

Sen. Dorgan commented, “What we want at the end of this is a product [that] is contributed to by all of the jurisdictions of this country…so we have an adequate database [of offenders]. It doesn’t pay for us to create a system that has a patchwork of holes; that’s not protecting the American people.”

Also testifying were Ronald Suppah, Sr., chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Oregon, and William Gregory, tribal prosecutor for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in Harbor Springs, Michigan.

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