The Hopi will be one of the earliest tribes to increase criminal sentences under a landmark federal law meant to improve public safety on American Indian reservations — where a historic gap in the U.S. justice system has left tribes with little authority over offenders on their lands.
The Hopi tribe recently updated its criminal code for the first time since 1972 with changes that comply with provisions of the Tribal Law and Order Act passed two years ago. Regardless of whether the crime was murder or something far less severe, all were considered misdemeanors with a maximum punishment in tribal court of a year in jail.
The changes that go into effect later this month create a class of felonies that could send convicted offenders to jail for up to three years for a single crime or nine years with stacked sentences for multiple offenses. Few tribes, including the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, have put together all the pieces to boost jail time under tribal laws.
"The main thing is it will improve our law and order on the reservation, so we have a better way of protecting any victims," Hopi Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa said Wednesday. "If something happens, we now have stronger teeth in making sure the perpetrators are punished. It's a huge step forward for us."
The changes place the Hopi in a position of leadership, as the first Arizona tribe to implement the longer sentences. Tribes around the country also will be watching to see if the Hopi's changes stand up to scrutiny and if they help deter crime on the reservation, said John Tuchi, the tribal liaison for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona.
The tribe's new sentencing guidelines don't preclude longer or stricter federal sentences for major crimes like murder.
"The biggest advantage of it is it allows them to make determinations about serious offenders without having to worry about what the federal government does or how fast it acts," Tuchi said. "It gives the tribes the opportunity to take more control of public safety."
The Hopi worked for 18 months to update the code, which includes an expansion of what had been one sex crime listed under tribal law and addresses stalking, disturbance of religious ceremonies, bootlegging and illegal drug use. It also needed to have at least one law-trained judge to handle the felony cases and provide public defenders to meet the requirements under the Tribal Law and Order Act.
Crimes against women, assaults resulting in serious bodily injury and domestic offenses have plagued the reservation. Tribal members told Hopi lawmakers before a vote on updating the code how they and their families suffered as victims of crime. One man who recently was released from jail even acknowledged his wrongdoing and praised the Tribal Council for moving toward stiffer sentences, Shingoitewa said.
What needs to be communicated to the public now is to "start reporting the perpetrators, instead of protecting them," said Wayne Kuwanhyoima, chairman of the Hopi Tribal Council's Law Enforcement Task Team.
On the Umatilla reservation, some crimes already have been charged under a list of about 50 felonies. Everyone there is entitled to a public defender regardless of whether they're indigent, and a judge who has been on the bench for 30 years is law trained.
"It's been working great so far," said Brent Leonhard, an attorney in the Office of Legal Counsel. "Certainly as with all tribes, we could use more resources. There's always a concern with being able to afford jail space when we do sentence to an extended period of time."
The lack of funding to implement the federal law has been a major concern for tribes considering longer sentences. Nearly all of the 109 tribes that were surveyed by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said they needed more money and technical help from the federal government, according to a report released in May.
The federal Bureau of Prisons has space for up to 100 offenders convicted of felonies in tribal courts who are sentenced to at least two years, but justice officials say those spaces are expected to fill up quickly as more tribes take advantage of the enhanced sentencing authority.