States to Enforce Molester Law on Tribal Land
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
A little-noticed provision in a 2006 federal sex-offender law is rankling American Indian tribes in six states because it would give state law enforcers unprecedented authority to monitor child molesters living on tribal land.
Tribal officials are raising objections because they see the provision as an erosion of their sovereignty, and they argue they weren't consulted when Congress drafted the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act , which overhauls how sex offenders across the country are registered and tracked.
"It's kind of like us calling France and telling them what to do," said Kristen Anderson, who has analyzed the Adam Walsh Act as deputy director for case analysis and support with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children , a quasi-governmental organization that seeks to prevent sexual abuse of children.
Meanwhile, state officials in Alaska , California , Minnesota , Nebraska , Oregon and Wisconsin worry how they are to enforce the law on vast tracts of self-governed tribal land within their borders.
The law, named after the murdered 6-year-old son of "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh and due to take effect in full by next July, gives the six states new powers to supervise sex offenders who reside on tribal lands that are home to hundreds of federally recognized American Indian communities.
Unlike 28 other states with federally recognized American Indian populations, the six states have had jurisdiction over most criminal matters on tribal lands for decades under long-standing federal policy. Monitoring of sex offenders who have rejoined society, however, is a civil regulatory procedure that previously had fallen to the tribes or the federal government.
The change would mean the states soon must ensure that sex offenders within tribal borders register more frequently with law enforcement authorities and often for longer periods of time. The states must add molesters to existing online sex-offender registries and collect and publish information about their appearance, whereabouts and even the cars they drive. In some cases, they must see that offenders who currently are not behind bars are identified and added to state registries retroactively.
In the other 28 states, tribes were given a choice under the act to track offenders independently or to designate that authority to their states. A total of 198 of 212 tribes rejected state control, though they still can reconsider. Experts predict that many of the tribes will retain authority and choose to form working partnerships with states to ensure the law is enforced.
At a meeting of state legislators this month in Washington , D.C. , Laura L. Rogers, the U.S. Justice Department official responsible for communicating with states about Adam Walsh Act requirements, cautioned lawmakers that the act demands new and widespread cooperation among states, localities and tribes across the country.
"I encourage everyone - whether you represent a tribe, you represent a local entity or you represent your state - to recognize that we all need to work together in this effort," said Rogers, director of the Justice Department's Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking (SMART).
There are more than 636,000 registered sex offenders in the United States , but there are no reliable estimates for how many live on American Indian land, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The Indian Health Service , a federal agency that seeks to improve health in tribal territories, estimates that one in four girls and one in seven boys will fall victim to sex abuse on American Indian lands.
In the six states where authority over sex offenders is being transferred to the state, tribal officials are upset not only because of sovereignty concerns. Some say they can keep track sex offenders on tribal land more effectively than state or local law enforcement.
"The tribal law enforcement have their ear to the pavement a lot better than the county law enforcement. They know who's coming and who's going and who the new people are. We feel we do a better job in that regard," said Joe Plumer, tribal attorney for the White Earth band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe in northwestern Minnesota .
The 20,000-strong band was among 75 Native American communities in the six states that last year petitioned the U.S. Justice Department for the right to monitor sex offenders independently. But it would take an act of Congress to return that authority to the tribes.
Leslie A. Hagen, an assistant U.S. attorney with the SMART office, said the Adam Walsh Act "doesn't mean those tribes need to dismantle (the registration systems) they have." Instead, she said, having a registration system in place will make it easier for tribes to share information with the state.
While tribes have expressed anger about the Adam Walsh Act, state lawmakers also are raising objections about the law and the costs of implementing it before next year's deadline. States that do not comply with the act face a 10-percent cut to their share of annual congressional grants used to fight crime.
Alaska state Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom, a Republican, said the complexity of the native population in her state - which itself has 227 federally recognized American Indian, Eskimo and other communities - makes it difficult to ensure that the state can comply by next year.
"Each of them has different rules and regulations and ways that they govern themselves," Dahlstrom said. "It's been a constant struggle in trying to work with the different groups."