Padilla, Murkowski, Merkley, Huffman Call for GAO to Study Inequitable Justice System Facing Tribal Nations in Different States
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Vice Chair of the Committee on Indian Affairs, Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, and Representative Jared Huffman (CA-02) sent a letter to the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) requesting they examine tribal criminal justice outcomes in states that have civil and criminal jurisdiction over Tribal lands – Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin – as compared to the rest of the country. They also requested GAO investigate how these complex criminal justice jurisdictional challenges impact investigations and protections for missing or murdered Indigenous women and people.
In 1953, Congress enacted Public Law 83-280, or “PL-280,” over the unanimous objection of Tribal governments and without any meaningful tribal consultation. The law ceded criminal jurisdiction over tribal lands from the federal government to certain states, mandating this transfer of jurisdiction from the federal government to state governments in Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin and allowing certain other states to opt in. Absent PL-280, states would not have any criminal jurisdiction over Tribal lands. Notably, when PL-280 passed, it did not provide any additional resources to states to offset the assumption of the new jurisdiction. In effect, the Bureau of Indian Affairs does not provide federal law enforcement funding to tribes in PL-280 states like they do with other tribes in non-PL-280 states. The lack of resources and structural consequences of PL-280 have created a dire situation for public safety on affected tribal lands.
Padilla is also leading an effort to secure $165 million in the FY 24 appropriations bill for Tribal governments in PL-280 states. An investment of $165 million in public safety funding for tribes in PL-280 states would help these tribes to build their own law enforcement capacity, improve crime response times, and support coordination with local and state law enforcement agencies. Providing this funding is critical to addressing chronic under-policing on tribal lands and allowing Tribal governments to protect their people through culturally appropriate community policing.
“We are concerned about the extent to which complex jurisdictional rules governing criminal justice inside and outside of Indian Country impact American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes and communities, and we ask that GAO examine criminal justice outcomes in states that have jurisdiction over tribal lands as a result of Public Law 83-280 (P.L. 280) compared to other states,” wrote the lawmakers.
“As recently as 2021, GAO noted that Tribes and Tribal stakeholders expressed concerns about challenges with cross-jurisdictional cooperation and a lack of comprehensive national data on missing and murdered Indigenous cases, among other concerns. We believe that P.L. 280 has created jurisdictional and funding challenges that result in crimes, particularly those committed by non-Native individuals, going uninvestigated and unpunished,” continued the lawmakers.
“We applaud the efforts and leadership of Senator Alex Padilla and all the legislators who have joined this letter requesting that the Government Accountability Office study the impact of Public Law 280, a law that was imposed on tribes without tribal consent, or even consultation. Since its enactment 70 years ago, Tribes in PL 280 states like ours have struggled to create public safety on our reservations. We have fewer federal resources for our courts, law enforcement, and public safety systems, yet are challenged by the same issues that Tribes in non-PL 280 states face. We believe this study is a critical first step in the federal government taking accountability for PL-280’s devastating impact on tribes and states, which receive no support for increased jurisdictional responsibilities,” said Yurok Chief Justice Abby Abinanti.
“PL-280 has left us with the impossible choice: accept minimal law and often adversarial protection from our local government or take tribal funds away from health care, elder care, and language preservation to fund our own police force,” said Meryl Picard, Chairwoman of the Bishop Paiute Tribe. “I want to thank Senator Padilla, Chair Merkley, and Vice Chair Murkowski for acknowledging our struggle and working towards a solution that upholds the federal government’s responsibility to keep our people safe from harm.”
“After nearly 20 years in Morongo Tribal leadership, I know that PL-280 has hampered our ability to address crime on our reservation,” said Chairman Charles Martin of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians. “This study will get to the heart of the issue and give us the data we need to pave a path to healing. I am deeply grateful to Senator Padilla, Chairman Merkley and Vice Chairwoman Murkowski for their leadership and willingness to give us the tools to address the flawed PL-280 system. “
Full text of the letter is available here and below:
Dear Mr. Dodaro:
We are concerned about the extent to which complex jurisdictional rules governing criminal justice inside and outside of Indian Country impact American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes and communities, and we ask that GAO examine criminal justice outcomes in states that have jurisdiction over tribal lands as a result of Public Law 83-280 (18 U.S.C. § 1162, 28 U.S.C. § 1360) (commonly referred to as “P.L. 280”) compared to other states.
GAO has previously reported that American Indian and Alaska Native communities are considered to be among the most vulnerable to violence, human trafficking, and involvement with the justice system, yet data on the prevalence of crises such as missing and murdered women, justice-involved youth, and human trafficking in Indian country are difficult to quantify and often unknown. The public safety crisis in rural Alaska is so great the Department of Justice declared it a federal emergency in 2019.
While federal agencies provide support to federally recognized tribes in Indian country and help tribes administer justice, states typically do not have jurisdiction to prosecute offenders in Indian country unless a federal law grants such jurisdiction. With some exceptions, P.L. 280 ceded criminal jurisdiction over tribal lands from the federal government to state governments in six states – Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin – granting these states jurisdiction to prosecute crimes by or against American Indians and Alaska Natives in Indian country. The law also allowed other states to elect to assume full or partial state jurisdiction (collectively, “P.L. 280 states”). Notably, when P.L. 280 was enacted into law, the federal government did not provide additional resources to states to offset the assumption of new criminal jurisdiction and law enforcement responsibilities. In addition, P.L. 280 was imposed on tribes without tribal consent, or even consultation.
As recently as 2021, GAO noted that tribes and tribal stakeholders expressed concerns about challenges with cross-jurisdictional cooperation and a lack of comprehensive national data on missing and murdered Indigenous cases, among other concerns. We believe that P.L. 280 has created jurisdictional and funding challenges that result in crimes, particularly those committed by non-Native individuals, going uninvestigated and unpunished.
An additional consequence has been that without federal money appropriated to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in P.L. 280 states for “Public Safety and Justice” (PSJ) programs, federally recognized tribes in P.L. 280 states are denied the opportunity to exercise tribal sovereignty and fully operate PSJ programs, as authorized under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, reducing access to justice and judicial services even though tribes continue to have concurrent jurisdiction with the P.L. 280 states.
In light of these growing concerns, we ask that GAO provide information on and examine the following questions:
1. What state and federal criminal justice system data are available on criminal justice outcomes related to P.L. 280 states versus non-P.L. 280 states, and what does that data show?
2. What additional data is needed, if any, to better understand criminal justice outcomes in these states?
3. How does P.L. 280 impact law enforcement staffing, investigations, and outcomes for tribal communities in P.L. 280 states versus non-P.L. 280 states?
4. What concerns do stakeholders have on impacts of investigations of and protections for missing or murdered Indigenous women and people in P.L. 280 states versus non-P.L. 280 states?
5. What, if any, federal efforts are underway to address reported justice system inequities in P.L. 280 states?
6. Has the federal government provided comparable or equivalent resources to tribal and/or state governments in P.L. 280 states, including not just law enforcement, but also prosecutorial resources and recidivism measures? And how has P.L. 280 impacted public safety funding, infrastructure for tribal courts, police, and other tribal justice agencies?
7. What were the initial impacts of P.L. 280 on public safety for tribes and what are the reported present-day impacts? How have the impacts of P.L. 280 changed over time?
8. How does the public safety of tribes in P.L. 280 states, response times from local police, jurisdictional clarity, relationships with state and county public safety partners compare with those tribes in non-P.L. 280 states?
9. How has P.L. 280 impacted the development of tribal government law enforcement and court systems?
10. By state (P.L. 280 and non-P.L. 280), what federal money has been distributed to tribes and tribal organizations for public safety and justice?
Thank you for your consideration of our request, and we look forward to your response.