Las Vegas Sun: For too long, Congress has delayed justice for Native American women

Finally, a long overdue bill to provide justice for missing and slain Native American women may be on a path to passage.

Known as Savanna’s Act, the measure would incentivize federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to investigate cold cases involving indigenous women and improve responses to crimes in which those women are victimized. It’s named for Savanna Greywind, a member of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe who was killed in 2017 by a woman who cut Greywind’s baby from her womb.

The bill, co-sponsored by a trio of senators that includes Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto, offers federal grants to agencies for compliance with requirements for investigations and calls for the U.S. Attorney General’s Office to publicly acknowledge agencies that adhere to the guidelines. In addition, it’s designed to improve the recording and sharing of information involving crimes against Native American women in federal databases.

It’s a strong and desperately needed piece of legislation.

In some counties with high concentrations of Native Americans, murder rates of indigenous women are up to 10 times higher than the national average. And experts say the numbers are likely much higher, as violence against Native American women tends to be underreported. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice reports that more than half of Native American women have been sexually assaulted, including a third who have been raped. That’s a rate 2.5 times higher than that among white women.

Much of this violence happens at the hands of non-native men, as has been the case since before America was a nation. And in another shameful aspect of the nation’s heritage, law enforcement and the legal system far too often provide no semblance of protection and justice to indigenous women.

Savanna’s Act was introduced in 2017, and should have passed long ago.

In fact, it cleared the Senate last year before being scuttled in the House in a shameful act of partisanship and childishness by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., then the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Goodlatte, who didn’t seek re-election and thankfully is no longer in Congress, held up the bill in committee after taking offense at one of the cosponsors, then-Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., for urging the public to pressure Goodlatte’s colleagues into supporting the legislation.

Goodlatte had taken a duplicitous stance on Savanna’s Act, claiming to support it while working to remove its teeth.

But with Goodlatte gone and Democrats in control of the House, where it was introduced again this year, the bill is on a good track. Cortez Masto and fellow co-sponsor Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also reintroduced Savanna’s Act this year in the Senate along with a companion measure, the Not Invisible Act, that would establish an advisory committee of local, tribal and federal officials to address crimes against Native Americans.

A Senate appropriations subcommittee chaired by Murkowski recently directed funding specifically to investigations of murdered and missing indigenous people.

In another promising step, Attorney General William Barr announced a plan last month to add specialized coordinators to 11 U.S. Attorney’s offices to improve law enforcement response to missing-persons cases involving indigenous women. The plan also addresses data collection and analysis, training for local and state law enforcement officers on response efforts, and the deployment of FBI experts when needed.

But as Cortez Masto says about the Barr plan, “we need this framework to have the force of law.” That’s because Barr’s version doesn’t contain all of the elements of Savanna’s Act, and because passing the act would give Congress oversight on compliance issues.

Cortez Masto called for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to fast-track the two acts, which is exactly what McConnell should do.

It’s past time to get these measures on the books and provide indigenous women with the equal protection and justice they deserve.

Source: Las Vegas Sun