Tribal law enforcement bill provides funding options

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On Monday, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation were pleased to learn that the Montana House of Representatives gave Senate Bill No. 310 its final approval. SB 310 has now passed both houses of the Legislature with bipartisan support and will go to the Governor for his signature.

Last year, Lake County officials advised the tribes that the County was facing a financial crisis, and asserted that this crisis was due in part to its obligations to enforce Montana’s criminal laws for crimes involving Indians on the Flathead Reservation. The Flathead Reservation is unique in Montana due to the state’s voluntary assumption of criminal jurisdiction under Public Law 83-280. Early this year, the Lake County Commission adopted a resolution and sought introduction of legislation for state withdrawal of jurisdiction under Public Law 83-280 if the County was not compensated by the state for Indian-related criminal justice activities. Public Law 83-280 was one of termination era polices started in the ‘50s by the federal government to eliminate Indian tribes. The termination era ended in 1976 with President Richard Nixon’s address to Congress where he called these policies an abomination.

The tribes took a different approach and asked Senator Lea Whitford, who represents portions of the Flathead Reservation and Lake County, to sponsor SB 310 as a mechanism to provide for retrocession of Public Law 83-280 jurisdiction recognizing that the County’s proposed legislation was likely to fail due to cost. SB 310 amends an existing statute and allows the tribes, in consultation with local governments, to withdraw their consent to state jurisdiction over felony criminal cases involving Indians on the Reservation.

The Legislature originally established this process 24 years ago for civil and misdemeanor jurisdiction. In 1993, the tribes undertook an effort to retrocede misdemeanor, traffic and civil jurisdiction on the Reservation. This successful effort resulted in a law enforcement arrangement between the tribes and local governments, including Lake County that is nationally renowned. With the tribes assuming significant responsibilities for prosecution, court administration and corrections, that arrangement has saved the state and local governments millions of dollars.

Under SB 310 the tribes could elect to use the same process that was successfully used 30 years ago, and it could result in additional savings to state and local governments. The Tribal Council is committed to carefully and deliberately evaluating potential arrangements to reduce the significant burden on our budget and our neighboring local governments. The Council is committed to consulting and working closely with state and local officials throughout the process. Importantly at this time, the Tribal Council has not advanced a resolution to withdraw consent to state jurisdiction, opting instead to study the issue carefully.

SB 310 does not alter law enforcement services or enhance the jurisdiction of the federal government or the tribes beyond what currently exists under the law. Law enforcement officers from the tribes and local governments have worked cooperatively for 24 years and will continue to do so. Instead, the bill provides the tribes with an avenue to require additional federal resources into the reservation’s criminal justice system.

– Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

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