"Historic" in a Bad Way: How the Tribal Law and Order Act Continues the American Tradition of Providing Inadequate Protection to American Indian and Alaska Native Rape Victims

By Owens, Jasmine | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview
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"Historic" in a Bad Way: How the Tribal Law and Order Act Continues the American Tradition of Providing Inadequate Protection to American Indian and Alaska Native Rape Victims


Owens, Jasmine, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


I. ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHERS

Four different men, Earl Pratt of Massachusetts, Wendell Lee Strickland of Arkansas, Ronnie Tom of Washington, and Tommy Lee Johnson of Texas, committed heinous crimes against children. (1) Each man raped a seven-year-old child in his respective state, and each was convicted and sentenced for his crime. (2) Despite general disdain for egregious crimes such as rape (whether of man, woman, or child), our justice system treats one of these men very differently from the rest. Pratt received a twenty-five-to-thirty-year sentence in Massachusetts, (3) Johnson received twenty years in Texas, (4) and Strickland received an eighteen-year sentence in Arkansas. (5) But Ronnie Tom served less than two years in a Colville Indian jail in the state of Washington because the Assistant United States Attorney in Spokane, Washington, declined to prosecute him, and federal laws prohibited the tribe from exacting a greater sentence. (6)

On a winter night in 2003, Ronnie Tom attempted to rape his live-in girlfriend's twelve-year-old sister. (7) The girl managed to escape Tom's attack, but he redirected his assault to his girlfriend's seven-year-old daughter. (8) Unfortunately, Tom succeeded in his vicious crime. (9) Although an "expert forensics interviewer found the [seven-year-old's] testimony recounting the rape clear and credible," Tom was never charged with a felony. (10) Tom is now living with his girlfriend and their young daughter, (11) despite a sexual-predator profile warning that Tom "should never be allowed to be alone with children, including his own, or live 'near places designed for children, such as schools, playgrounds (or) swimming pools.'" (12)

Why is it that Tom is home with his child, free to offend again, while others who committed similar crimes have been locked away for decades? Tom was not proven to be less culpable for his crime than his fellow offenders; there was no determination of insufficient evidence, nor was there any prosecutorial or police misconduct causing the case to be dismissed on a technicality. The differences between Tom and the other convicted child rapists are race and location. Because Tom is a Colville Indian (13) who committed his crime on the Colville Indian reservation in eastern Washington, his case falls under federal jurisdiction. (14) In Tom's case the Assistant United States Attorney (located 150 miles away in Spokane, Washington) declined to prosecute, as they do in 65% of cases coming from Indian Country. (15) The Colville Tribal Court was constrained by federal legislation capping sentences delivered by tribal courts to one year of incarceration per crime, a $5,000 fine, or both. (16) The tribe charged and convicted Tom for his crime and a separate incident involving Tom's girlfriend's twelve-year-old sister, resulting in less than two years of incarceration in tribal jail, the maximum penalty the tribe could impose. (17)

Unfortunately, the story of Ronnie Tom is an all-too-common reality for American Indian and Alaska Native people living in the United States' domestic dependent nations (Indian Country). American Indian and Alaska Native people suffer from a disproportionately high rate of rape and sexual assault. (18)

   Data gathered by the US Department of Justice indicates that Native
   American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more
   likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the USA in
   general. ... [M]ore than one in three [Native American and Alaska
   Native women] will be raped during their lifetime; the comparable
   figure for the USA as a whole is less than one in five. (19)

And while the assaults on American Indian and Alaska Native women are more violent than rapes suffered by the general population, (20) their rapes often go unprosecuted. (21) A complex concurrent jurisdictional system and mixed messages about state, federal, and tribal responsibilities lessen accountability for all law enforcement agencies involved and result in a lack of justice for victims.

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