Western Slope Round-Up: Improving Justice on Indian Reservations

Law and order is handled differently on Colorado’s two Ute Indian reservations in the southwest corner of the state – the tribal courts are under federal jurisdiction. Police officers are from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Plus, serious crimes committed on the Southern Ute reservations don’t go to county district courts — justice is served in federal courts in Denver, more than 300 miles away.

A few weeks ago, the Colorado U.S. Attorney’s Office hosted a conference in Colorado Springs that included federal and American Indian justice experts from the Four Corners states to share information about criminal justice on tribal lands, according to an article in The Durango Herald.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket One of the group’s recommendations was to build a federal courthouse in Durango to better serve Colorado’s Southern Ute reservations.

An Indian law expert from Harvard Law School told conference attendees that tribal governments should be able to prosecute their own criminal cases. However, since many reservations are too impoverished to support adequate criminal-justice systems, removing federal oversight could violate basic constitutional principals, members of the conference decided. Plus, if non-Indians commit crimes on reservations, there is a question of whether those defendants would fall under tribal rule.

A new program cross-deputizes officers to enforce federal, state and tribal laws; however, Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement manpower is still in short supply on Colorado’s reservations. It would take an act of Congress to resolve financial shortfalls in the bureau and to approve expanding the federal court system.

Colorado’s Indian reservations were formed by an 1863 treaty.

On the map, Colorado’s Indian reservations are highlighted in pink.

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Leslie Robinson

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