HELENA, Mont. (CN) – A federal law enacted more than 60 years ago as part of a push to assimilate Indian reservations in the United States has forced states and counties to pay millions to prosecute crimes committed by Native Americans, but states are finally starting to push back against the law.
In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill that enacted Public Law 280 – a federal law meant to help control crime on Indian reservations. Public Law 280 handed over to several states criminal and civil jurisdiction in Indian country. Six states were compelled to enter into the agreement: California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, Wisconsin and Alaska. There were 10 non-mandatory states that later opted in to Public Law 280: Nevada, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Washington state, South Dakota, Montana, North Dakota, Arizona and Utah.
But as tribes have grown and costs of criminal prosecution have increased, states and counties under Public Law 280 want financial help – or they want out of the agreement.
A Montana legislator recently introduced a bill that would force the state to reimburse counties for their criminal prosecution costs under Public Law 280. But last week, the state House voted 100-0 to reject the bill, saying that the state had no line-item budget to cover those costs.
The bill's sponsor, Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said the bill's intent was to draw attention to the fact that the federal government imposes a financial burden on states and counties that participate in the Public Law 280 program.
The Flathead Indian Reservation is in Lake County, and the reservation contributes to what county officials call an overburdened justice system to prosecute felony tribal crimes. The county and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have had a good working relationship in co-managing crime under Public Law 280, but the county says it cannot afford to pay for what amounts to a small portion of the population committing most of the felonies.
The tribal members make up about 20 percent of Lake County’s population, but account for roughly 80 percent of the felonies committed there, county commissioner and former county sheriff Bill Barron said. The county, with a population of about 22,000, processes about 500 felonies a year – far higher than other counties in Montana with larger populations.
When Montana entered into the agreement under Public Law 280 decades ago, Lake County could afford to pay for prosecution and incarceration of Native American criminals. That's changed, as the reservation enrollment has grown to about 7,000 people and the county is facing an overburdened jail that must be rebuilt, Lake County deputy attorney Wally Congdon said.
Under Public Law 280 the agreement is between the states and the federal government. But it rests on the counties' shoulders to pay for the law enforcement costs. In Lake County, those costs are over $2 million, the county attorney's office said.
Some states were able to retrocede from the law, or give back management of misdemeanor crimes to the individual tribes.
National Trend Against Public Law 280
Carole Goldberg, a professor of law at UCLA, is one of the preeminent authorities on Public Law 280. She said more states and counties are trying to roll back their Public Law 280 agreements with the federal government.
“Certainly the recession of 2008 increased states' interest in divesting themselves of Public Law 280 jurisdiction, as the law was an unfunded federal mandate and states and counties are unable to generate property tax revenue from trust lands,” Goldberg, who co-wrote the book “Captured Justice: Native Nations and Public Law 280,” said in an interview.