The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is in line to get some federal firepower in prosecuting major crimes, becoming just the second tribe nationally to take advantage of a 2010 law designed to improve public safety in Indian Country.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced Tuesday that it approved the band’s application for the federal government to join tribal, state and county prosecutors in charging crimes on the reservation, which spans three counties in central Minnesota.
Mille Lacs Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin said the prospect of federal prison and stiffer sentences would help deter criminal gangs that have long plagued tribal lands.
“We need this message to go out to drug dealers, gang members and anyone intent on committing violent crimes on our lands: We will catch you, and when we do, you are going to Leavenworth, not Stillwater,” Benjamin said in her State of the Band address Tuesday. “And you are not getting out for a very, very long time.”
Minnesota now has the country’s first two examples of the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act in action. The White Earth Band in northern Minnesota became the first to achieve “concurrent criminal jurisdiction” when its application was approved in 2013.
At Mille Lacs, federal jurisdiction over major crimes and certain other offenses will begin Jan. 1, 2017.
A tribal liaison from the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota will meet with local and tribal officials in the coming year, said Mille Lacs Solicitor General Todd Matha. He said he hopes the collaboration can foster additional agreements among the three counties touched by the reservation.
The band has recorded 1,600 crimes since February 2013 on land under its jurisdiction, which has roughly 2,300 residents. They included two homicides, 113 assaults, 24 domestic assaults, 229 burglaries, 28 charges of arson, 35 robberies and 943 thefts.
“We want to make certain that the outcome of this decision will benefit the residents of the Mille Lacs Band and improve the safety of the community,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said in a statement.
The 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act undid a provision of a 1953 law that shifted prosecution of major crimes from the federal government to six states, including Minnesota. While federal prosecutors already can charge such crimes as drug trafficking anywhere in the country, Tuesday’s announcement means that such major crimes as murder, rape, assault and child abuse on the Mille Lacs Band’s land can also be prosecuted.
Tracy Toulou, director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Tribal Justice, said crime rates on tribal land tend to outstrip state averages.
“There has historically been a lot of trauma and cultural discontinuity on those reservations, and those things increase the likelihood of substance abuse and violent crime,” Toulou said
Gang activity a catalyst
In the Mille Lacs band’s application, Benjamin wrote that state, local and tribal resources “have proved insufficient to provide effective criminal law enforcement” on the reservation. She wrote that Mille Lacs County’s crime rate remained double the Minnesota average between 2000 and 2010, with a disproportionate amount of criminal activity coming on the band’s land.
Matha said the band’s crime challenges are part of a continuum throughout the state.
“Mille Lacs is basically the first stop from the [Twin] Cities going north,” Matha said. “When there’s gang activity and control of the drug trade, there’s obviously the violence that goes along with that.”
Matha said concurrent jurisdiction on the White Earth reservation has produced nearly a dozen referrals to federal prosecutors — more than half of which produced convictions. The first four federal cases charged in the first year of the agreement on White Earth ranged from a domestic murder to child pornography, said Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle.
Toulou called White Earth a model for how these jurisdictional agreements should work — led, he said, by a U.S. attorney’s office “willing to stretch boundaries” in connecting with tribal officials.
“So many crimes are jurisdictionally complex,” Toulou said. “Having all the players at the table and resources available to address them is key.”