Nothing can bring back Savanna Greywind, the vibrant young woman who died a horrific death when a Fargo, N.D., neighbor cut open her womb and stole her unborn baby in August 2017. But a proposed law named for Greywind could help other American Indian women from becoming victims of violence, which is why is it so frustrating to see this important criminal justice reform hung up at the last minute in the U.S. House for no good reason.
Passing Savanna’s Act ought to be a moral imperative. Researchers have found that murder rates for Indian and Alaska Native women in some areas are more than 10 times higher than the national “homicide victimization” average, and there’s growing awareness that law enforcement information gaps and tangled jurisdictional boundaries too often stymie investigations of missing and murdered Indian women. The 2017 movie “Wind River” put a heartbreaking spotlight on this reality.
Savanna’s Act unanimously cleared the Senate on Dec. 7, which should have created momentum for it to easily pass the House before the session’s imminent end. Unfortunately, retiring Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, has become a one-man wall blocking advancement.
Goodlatte is the powerful chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. It appears he is wielding his influence to prevent the bill from going to the House floor for a vote. Outgoing North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the legislation’s chief author, has been hammering Goodlatte in high-profile interviews and on social media. Her frustration is understandable.
“I’d like to see Congressman Goodlatte actually visit a reservation in North Dakota and explain to the families of victims why he is blocking this bill. Unlike Congressman Goodlatte, I am serious about saving lives and making sure Native American women are invisible no longer — and I’m determined to not let Savanna’s Act go down without a fight,” Heitkamp said in a statement provided to an editorial writer.
Heitkamp lost her re-election bid last month, so the legislation will soon lose a passionate advocate in Washington. If the bill fails to clear the House in the next few days and then get signed into law, it will have to be reintroduced next year and clear both congressional chambers.
Savanna’s Act isn’t a panacea for the epidemic of violence afflicting Indian women. But it would substantially strengthen investigations into their disappearance or death, and increase the likelihood that these crimes can be prosecuted. Among the improvements: creating standardized procedures to bolster cooperation among federal, state and local agencies that may share jurisdiction in or near tribal communities. The law also would expand tribal access to key law enforcement databases and improve data collection by compiling statistics on these crimes in an annual report to Congress. According to Heitkamp’s office, there were 5,712 cases of missing Indian women reported in 2016.
Because of his impending retirement, Goodlatte’s office referred an editorial writer’s inquiry to the House Judiciary Committee. Goodlatte’s holdup is tied to concerns about the bill’s language. That is curious given that the Senate didn’t raise similar concerns when the bill passed there. It’s worth noting that Goodlatte previously tried to undermine funding for another tribal justice initiative, one championed by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., so his track record on Indian issues is dubious at best.
McCollum is one of the House cosponsors for Savanna’s Act. Both of Minnesota’s U.S. senators are cosponsors of Heitkamp’s bill in that chamber. The delegation’s support for the measure reflects well on Minnesota, which is home to seven reservations and four tribal communities.
Goodlatte needs to quickly sweep aside the roadblocks he’s put up to this important criminal justice reform. He shouldn’t want to end his House career on such a shameful note. Failing that, Speaker Paul Ryan and House leadership need to override Goodlatte. There is still room on the House calendar to take action on Savanna’s Act. This common-sense, compassionate bill should not get left behind as the 115th Congress rapidly comes to a close.