Arizona's Monument Valley is known for its red sandstone buttes and spires, but now it's notorious for something else: crime. The Navajo Nation is one of the most violent reservations in the country. According to FBI reports, over the past five years, more rapes were reported on the Navajo Nation than in San Diego, Detroit or Denver, among other cities.
The U.S. attorney's office tries to take on the most violent crimes, but it often lacks enough evidence to prosecute. And because of antiquated tribal codes, Navajo courts can only order someone to serve one year in jail.
Crime On The Reservation
Tuba City, Ariz., jail supervisor Robbin Preston shows off his new state-of-the-art building on the Navajo Nation, about an hour north of Flagstaff.
"This is our sally port," he says, "so whenever police officers are bringing inmates in, they'll notify our central at the gate, and then we'll bring them through here."
Preston says that up until recently, Tuba City had an Old West-style jail with just 10 beds in a building that was falling apart. The jail was so full, in fact, it could only hold inmates for eight hours. The recidivism rate was so high, Preston couldn't keep track of it.
"We have inmates who know how to book themselves. If I have a new officer on the floor who forgot to do a process," he says, "I have inmates who will say, 'You forgot to do this.' "
The new jail has 136 beds, but the tribe still needs more jail space, and it's building others. But that's only part of the problem. The tribe lacks the resources to fight crime. Only 300 Navajo police officers patrol an area the size of West Virginia.
They were overwhelmed one day last October when they got a string of four unrelated homicide calls. McDonald Rominger, who heads the northern Arizona FBI office, sent his investigators to help. But even Rominger says he needs more manpower to cover the reservation, which reaches from Arizona into both Utah and New Mexico.
"It's not uncommon for FBI agents or Navajo CIs to drive 600 to 700 miles in one day just trying to accomplish something that would take a detective in San Francisco an hour to accomplish," Rominger says.
The U.S. attorney's office in Arizona has 19 lawyers working only on Indian Country cases. Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Schneider says no other office in the nation has that many people working solely on reservation cases.
"It's never enough. I'm always amazed at the volume of cases, and we could always do more," Schneider says.
But according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office study, his office declined to prosecute half of Indian Country cases.
"Unfortunately, not every single one of these incidents can we prove all the time, and that's frustrating," Schneider says. "We wish that every single one we could."
Prosecuting In Tribal Court
The U.S. attorney's office wants to increase the number of prosecutions through workshops like one held recently on the Navajo and Hopi reservations. Assistant U.S. attorney Dyanne Greer is training tribal police and nurses.
Evidence critical to an investigation is often lost because it wasn't collected or preserved properly, and Greer explains that if her office can prosecute the case, the feds can impose strict sentences. The maximum tribal court sentence on the Navajo Nation is only one year, even for violent crimes. And that was also the case until recently on the Hopi Reservation. Jill Engel, the Hopi tribe's chief prosecutor, points to a recent tribal court case as an example of why things needed to change.
A 62-year-old Hopi medicine man assaulted and raped a patient last year. The U.S. attorney in Flagstaff couldn't prosecute the case because he didn't have sufficient evidence, so the feds sent the case back to tribal court.
"He was charged with sexual imposition," Greer says. "[It's] what the old statute was called, which is basically unlawful carnal knowledge of a woman."
The tribal court sentenced him to three years in jail, one year for each count. By way of comparison, off reservation, the average rape sentence is 14 years for each count, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Engel and several Hopi officials have worked for years to change the tribe's out-of-date criminal code — and they've finally done it.
Under the new code, the tribal court could now sentence the medicine man to a total of nine years. And Engel says tribal courts have significant advantages over federal courts outside the reservation.
"We live here. We engage the community here. We have an understanding of the crimes and the crime scenes, and we have Hopi juries here, and it gives us an advantage in that there are some cases I believe the tribal courts can more effectively prosecute," she says.
Engel hopes having the authority to impose stricter sentences means more victims will come forward with the confidence that justice will be served.
This report was done in collaboration with Fronteras, a public radio reporting project focusing on the American Southwest.