Unhappy with the way criminal cases are handled on the White Earth Indian Reservation, tribal officials are seeking more control over law enforcement and the courts.
Tribal officials say local counties don't prosecute crimes on the reservation aggressively enough.
AN UNEASY RELATIONSHIP
Rape cases particularly are going unpunished on the White Earth reservation, Tribal Attorney Joe Plummer said. Tribal officials want those cases prosecuted to help break the cycle of teen pregnancy and poverty on the reservation.
"These are young girls, 14, 15, 16 years old being impregnated by older men, 21 and older," Plummer said. "And these are not being prosecuted. I can't remember when one was prosecuted."
“I can't remember when [a rape case] was prosecuted.”Tribal Attorney Joe Plummer
But county officials strongly disagree. They contend tribal members don't cooperate with investigators.
The tribe's dissatisfaction over how criminal cases are handled on the reservation is just one example of the tension between White Earth and Mahnomen County over land, taxes and crime.
A review of Mahnomen County court records from 2008 to 2009 appears to confirm Plummer's complaint about the lack of prosecution for criminal sexual conduct cases. But it's unclear if all of the records from those years are entered in the public database.
When it comes to fighting crime on the White Earth Reservation, counties control the system. The tribe can investigate crimes, but county prosecutors decide who gets charged with a crime.
The two sides often disagree on how cases are handled. It's one of many areas where the tribe and the county don't see eye to eye.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: VICTIMS DON'T COOPERATE
Mahnomen County Attorney Julie Bruggeman said she's not the problem. She said crime victims don't cooperate with her office.
She also questions whether tribal officials really want justice for all the people accused of a crime. Bruggeman accused tribal officials of wanting to pick and choose who is prosecuted based on tribal connections.
"The tribe wants to not have equal rights. They want to have above the rights of anybody else," she said. "They want some people prosecuted and not others. So there's a fight between what they want and what they say they want."
Bruggeman also said that because of budget and staffing constraints, her office must prioritize and can't afford to waste time trying to prosecute weak cases.
BELIEF WANING IN JUSTICE SYSTEM, ADVOCATE SAYS
Victim advocate Jodie Sunderland said many women she works with no longer believe the justice system will help them. Sunderland, who works for a tribal domestic violence advocacy program, said she knows of one case where a woman had to sell her home and relocate to protect herself from an abuser.
Sunderland said many perpetrators have avoided charges numerous times. That gives them confidence, she said, and allows them to think "I got away with it and look what I did to you."
"It re-victimizes the victim," Sutherland said. "The chances of the victim coming forward again against the perpetrator are very slim if he or she was never held accountable the first time."
Sunderland said the tribal domestic violence program works with Becker and Clearwater counties on tracking cases, but has no working relationship with Mahnomen County.
SHERIFF: POLITICS DO NOT AFFECT JUSTICE
Mahnomen County Sheriff Doug Krier admits that tension exists between Mahnomen County and White Earth. There have been legal disputes over land and property taxes for the tribal casino. The county lost about $500,000 a year in property taxes when the tribal casino came off the property tax rolls. But the sheriff insists politics do not affect justice.
Krier said sexual assault and domestic violence are difficult cases. He said investigators are often stymied by uncooperative victims.
"I personally have done, I'm guessing over the last 14 years, probably about 30 interviews," he said. "Not many of 'em go to prosecution."
"You try to gather the evidence and then it turns out to be something gets distorted and you try to go back and put the pieces together and you get an uncooperative person and it just doesn't go anywhere," Krier said.
DISCREPANCIES IN CRIME REPORTING
Tribes are not required to report crime statistics to the state. Counties do the reporting, but there's no way to know which crimes happened on the reservation.
Mahnomen County is the only county in Minnesota entirely inside a reservation. Two other counties, Becker and Clearwater, have jurisdiction over smaller parts of the reservation.
The 2009 state report shows one rape in Mahnomen County. The same year, the tribal victim advocate program documented 96 sexual assaults on the reservation.
The other counties with jurisdiction on the reservation reported more rape cases. Becker County had reported 17 and Clearwater County, 11. But both have larger populations than Mahnomen County.
Court records show one criminal sexual conduct charge in Mahnomen County in 2009. County Attorney Julie Bruggeman said her office was presented with six cases. Only one was strong enough to prosecute. That case resulted in acquittal for the defendant.
Bruggeman's office is likely to get more sexual assault cases this year.
RESERVATION GETS AGGRESSIVE
The White Earth Police Department is taking a more aggressive role in investigating crime on the reservation.
White Earth Police Chief Randy Goodwin said his department hired a full-time domestic violence and sexual assault investigator this year, and for the first time they are tracking cases. In the first half of this year, White Earth investigated 36 sexual assault cases. Many are still open investigations.
When cases are not prosecuted, Goodwin said, it often leads to an escalation in violence.
"These victims and witnesses won't or don't cooperate because their feeling is nothing will happen anyway," he said. "So they'll just take their justice out on the streets. And that's where we end up going back a second or third time."
Goodwin said there are many examples of cases he believes were strong enough to be prosecuted.
"And I do understand that prosecution being declined because there is no cooperation from victims or witnesses. But for the most part there are some cases that just don't get prosecuted and I have no idea why they're being declined."
RESEARCHER: A CYCLICAL PROBLEM
This uneasy relationship between White Earth and Mahnomen is not unusual. UCLA sociology professor Duane Champagne, who has studied the relationship between tribes and counties extensively in Minnesota and other states, said most reservations don't believe counties handle reservation crime fairly.
"The problem largely was that county prosecutors simply refused to prosecute very many of those cases, partly because they said they never had sufficient evidence to make a case," Champagne said. "In some counties the only time the prosecutors would take those cases up was if they had a written confession on the perpetrator."
Champagne said there's a cycle. Tribal members don't believe they will get justice, so they don't cooperate with police. That makes it more difficult to investigate and prosecute crimes.
The relationship between Mahnomen County and the White Earth Reservation could change because of a new federal law.
The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 gives tribes the right to petition the U.S. Attorney General for authority to prosecute crimes in tribal court. White Earth is the first tribe in the nation to seek the change.
An official with the Justice Department says they are still developing regulations to put the new law into effect. But a decision on the White Earth petition could come later this year.