The statistics are appalling. More than a third of Native women are raped in their lifetime and 39 percent are victims of domestic violence. According to the National Congress of American Indians, violence against them “greatly exceeds that of any other population of women in the United States.”
This epidemic of stalking, abuse and assault is a national disgrace. So is the high rate of violence experienced by American Indian men. There’s a particular urgency to stemming this public safety crisis for Minnesota, which is home to seven reservations and four tribal communities. That’s why the state’s newly-appointed U.S. attorney, Erica MacDonald, merits praise for taking swift steps her first year on the job to aggressively prosecute crime on tribal lands.
MacDonald was sworn into office in June and is a Trump administration appointee for a post that had been vacant since March 2017. She had served as a Dakota County judge since 2009 and, before that, worked as an assistant U.S. attorney for nearly a decade in Minnesota and Illinois.
MacDonald met with the Editorial Board soon after starting her duties last summer as the state’s top federal law enforcement officer. She spoke movingly then of her previous experience as an assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting crime on Minnesota reservations and vowed that criminal justice in these communities would be a priority. The U.S. Attorney’s Office shoulders tribal public safety responsibilities because of historic federal trust obligations. Violence in these communities has been a long-festering and long-neglected problem.
A recent Star Tribune story by Stephen Montemayor detailed how MacDonald is making good on this promise. She has boosted the number of prosecutors focusing on this work from two to six. A competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) will further bolster this number in Minnesota.
The DOJ invited tribes to apply to hire a tribal prosecutor who will be cross-deputized as a special assistant U.S. attorney. The process required support from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the district where the tribe is located. Five positions were awarded, with two of the winning applications from Minnesota — the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians — bringing the number of dedicated attorneys in Minnesota to eight.
Another prosecutor “on detail” from the federal Office of Tribal Justice is also working in Minneapolis.
The additional attorneys do not take away from the office’s resources to fight other crime. MacDonald has increased staffing and worked to get funding to do so. The office’s roster of prosecutors now stands at 62, up from 51.
Strengthening dedicated staff is a logical step in stemming high rates of violence experienced by Indians. While the problem’s causes are complex and include poverty and chemical dependence, reluctance by U.S. attorney’s offices nationally to prosecute crimes has been problematic. The number of so-called “declinations,” or decisions not to prosecute in matters considered resolved, has long been controversial. A DOJ report released last month still showed a 37 percent declination rate in 2017, with this data point remaining stagnant over the past five years.
A key problem is that evidence is difficult for prosecutors to collect because of the nature of the crime and the distance between remote Indian communities and federal authorities. Adding prosecutors, as MacDonald has done, will help by allowing them time to more aggressively work these cases and to physically be in these communities — a key to winning the trust of victims and witnesses.
MacDonald, a Texas native, is also sensibly putting policies in place to ensure that aggressive prosecution of these crimes endures beyond her tenure. Her efforts are timely and necessary and should spur other U.S. attorneys to follow her lead. Said MacDonald: “If you don’t feel like you have the freedom to live free of violence or free from the threat of violence, then you are not enjoying the liberty that we are all guaranteed by our Constitution.”