In a speech to the American Bar Association last week, United States Attorney General, Eric Holder, introduced a dramatically different approach to how the federal government will now prosecute and sentence non-violent drug offenders. The new approach calls for a reduction in federal prosecution of low-level offenders and advised federal prosecutors to recommend alternative sentencing to prison time.
These new guidelines, if implemented, will have a direct impact on the length and types of sentences doled out for drug crimes committed on Indian reservations.
“What no one is bringing up, especially the press in South Dakota, is what does this look like in Indian country? This really has an important connection to the Tribal Law and Order Act because what we see is that when tribes adopt the Tribal Law and Order Act it can increase their sentencing authority so more of these lower-level drug cases can go into tribal court instead of federal court. This is a good thing; we need more cases to go into tribal court,” he said.
The Tribal Law and Order Act was signed into law by President Obama in 2010. The law strengthens the authority of tribal courts to increase jail sentences handed down in criminal cases. For many in Indian country it is seen as a way of expanding the sovereignty of tribes, however, certain criteria must be met by a tribal court prior to its implementation.
“What tribes can do with the Tribal Law and Order Act they don’t have to adopt the same western system you see in the federal courts or even the state courts. They can create systems of holistic approaches that can treat the individual,” added Johnson.
Johnson said that the new approach still doesn’t mean that prison time will be abandoned in all cases.
“I think that Attorney General Holder’s Smart Crime Initiative changes some of the focus for first and even second time offenders. The focus needs to be more on rehabilitation rather than incarceration. We don’t want our federal prisons to be places where people are warehoused and forgotten. It makes more sense to look at treatment options rather than merely incarceration. Now that doesn’t mean that people who are leading large conspiracies or are violent criminals are not going to receive prison time they still will. But particularly this is geared for nonviolent first time and nonviolent offenders,” said Johnson.