This week's Oklahoma Sovereignty Symposium is bringing together tribal leaders, state and federal governments and members of the community to discuss Indian legal issues. It provides us with a unique opportunity to reflect on the work we've done thus far and the work that lies ahead.
Respect for tribal sovereignty, which inspires the title of this symposium, is at the heart of the U.S. Department of Justice's work in Indian country. There, the federal government alone has the authority to seek a significant term of incarceration when a serious crime has been committed. This authority gives us a legal responsibility to prosecute violent crime. More importantly, we have a moral responsibility, grounded not only in our trust obligations to the nation's first Americans, but also in our principles of equal justice. We can only be effective in our mission through close cooperation and partnerships.
The DOJ has strengthened its relationship with tribes in several ways. All U.S. attorneys with Indian country jurisdiction now meet at least annually with tribal leaders and district law enforcement. We develop operational plans to enhance public safety and reduce violent crime. Department officials also have engaged in listening sessions across the country, hearing from tribal leaders about issues ranging from tribal safety and domestic violence to environmental justice.
But listening isn't enough. There also has to be action.
Recently, the department expanded training efforts for law enforcement personnel. As part of this initiative, we're working with other federal agencies to increase cross-deputizations, allowing eligible tribal law enforcement officials to investigate and make arrests in federal cases. This is especially important in states such as Oklahoma, where Indian country is often intermingled with non-Indian land.
The department's efforts are beginning to make a difference, but much work remains to be done. This is especially the case in the area of domestic violence. American Indian and Alaska Native women are raped at rates higher than any other race. Violent crime rates in Indian country are now two, four and in some cases 10 times the national average.
To help stem the tide of violence, the DOJ proposed legislation to recognize tribes' authority to hold certain perpetrators of domestic violence accountable for their crimes on tribal lands — regardless of whether the defendant is Indian or non-Indian — and to enhance federal penalties for serious crimes of domestic violence.
The proposal was included in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support. The House also passed a version of the act, but one that doesn't allow tribal authorities to hold non-Indian perpetrators accountable for their crimes in tribal court.
The administration encourages Congress to pass a bipartisan measure that protects all victims. The act has been improved each time it has been reauthorized, and this time should be no different.
Coats is U.S. attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma. Cole is U.S. deputy attorney general.