Former Minn. U.S. Attorney praises new tribal law

Former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger said Friday that a new law signed by President Obama giving greater powers to tribal courts and law enforcement was long overdue.

Heffelfinger, who served as Minnesota's top federal prosecutor during the George W. Bush administration, had testified before Congress on multiple occasions in support of the legislation, which Obama signed Thursday.

"It's the most dramatic improvement in public safety in Indian Country in decades," Heffelfinger told MPR's Morning Edition.

The measure provides for the appointment of special U.S. attorneys to ensure violent crimes in tribal communities are prosecuted. It also revamps training for reservation police, expands the sentencing authority of tribal courts from one to three years, addresses jurisdictional issues and improves the collection and reporting of Indian crime data.

The law aims to address high crime rates on Indian reservations -- violent crime occurs on Indian reservations at a rate 2.5 times the national average, Heffelfinger said. Native American women are victims of violent crime at a higher rate than any other group, he added.

"This is a horrible situation," he said.

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Heffelfinger said the law will hold the federal government accountable for its role in addressing crime on Indian reservations. He said it will also allow more federal resources to make their way to reservations.

The state of Minnesota has jurisdiction over crimes committed on nine of the state's 11 Indian reservations. The Red Lake and Bois Forte reservations are policed by tribal law enforcement, and the most serious crimes are investigated and prosecuted by the federal government.

The new law received bipartisan support in Congress, but Heffelfinger said he doesn't know why it took so long for the legislation to pass.

"It seems so fundamental that everybody's entitled to public safety as a fundamental right," he said.

(MPR's Cathy Wurzer and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)