Senator John Thune last week joined a bipartisan group of his colleagues in sending a letter to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Ranking Member Judd Gregg (R-NH) urging them to fully fund the tribal law enforcement and justice programs authorized as part of a foreign assistance bill enacted in 2008. Senator Thune authored the bipartisan amendment creating the Emergency Fund for Indian Safety and Health, which authorizes $2 billion in funding for critical public safety, health care, and water needs in Indian Country.
"The creation of the Emergency Fund for Indian Safety and Health was an important step forward in addressing the public safety crisis on many tribal lands, but Congress must act soon to make the authorized funding available," said Thune. "The basic public safety needs of many tribal communities, both in South Dakota and in other states, are not being met, which has a detrimental effect on education, economic development, and infrastructure improvement."
Although the Emergency Fund for Indian Safety and Health is authorized to spend up to $2 billion, Congress has not yet appropriated any money into the fund. Senator Thune's bipartisan letter requests that the Budget Committee allocate the full amount for the fund in this year's budget.
In addition to creating the Emergency Fund in 2008, Senator Thune requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) study tribal court systems and ways they can be improved. The GAO continues to make progress regarding their study and indicates that a report should be ready by the fall.
Senator Thune is joined in sending the letter by Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO), Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Jim Risch (R-ID), Jon Tester (D-MT), and Tom Udall (D-NM). The full text of the letter follows:
April 16, 2010
Dear Senators Conrad and Gregg:
We write to request that you assume the amounts authorized in Title VI of the Tom Lantos and Henry J. Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-293) (the "Act") in the FY2011 budget. The funding would be used for desperately needed law enforcement, health care, and water projects benefitting American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Based on the U.S. Constitution, treaties with Indian tribes, and federal statutes, the United States has assumed a trust responsibility for the provision of public safety and health care to Indian people. The Native American population, however, is facing a public safety and health crisis due, in large part, to a lack of federal funding. Recognizing this fact, in July 2008, Congress authorized (1) $750,000,000 for law enforcement in Indian Country, (2) $250,000,000 for Indian health care, including contract health services, Indian health facilities, and domestic and community sanitation facilities, and (3) $1,000,000,000 for water supply projects that are part of Indian water settlements approved by Congress. See Sec. 601, P.L. 110-293. These amounts are in addition to any amounts made available under any other provision of law.
The funds authorized for public safety would begin to address the lack of staff and resources to arrest, prosecute, and detain criminals in Indian Country. According to a Justice Department study, American Indians experience violent crime at a rate more than twice the national average, yet funding for law enforcement in Indian Country is seriously deficient, contributing to serious public safety risks. For example, a 2004 Inspector General report found that Indian detention facilitates are neither safe nor secure. The report states that "it became abundantly clear that some facilities we visited were egregiously unsafe, unsanitary, and a hazard to both inmates and staff alike. BIA's detention program is riddled with problems . . . and is a national disgrace."
A 2008 Department of the Interior-contracted report (the Shubnum Report) confirms that tribal jails are still grossly insufficient:
[o]nly half of the offenders are being incarcerated who should be incarcerated, the remaining are released through a variety of informal practices due to severe overcrowding in existing detention facilities. . . and life and safety of officers and inmates are at risk for lack of adequate Justice Facilities and programs in Indian Country.
The Shubnum Report recommends that the United States construct or rehabilitate 263 detention facilities throughout Indian Country at an estimated cost of $8.4 billion over the next ten years. Significant funding is also needed for the operation and maintenance of these facilities as well as tribal law enforcement and tribal judicial systems.
The health care funds authorized by the Act would help strengthen access to health care in Indian Country. Historically, Indians suffer from a greater incidence of illness and higher mortality rates than the general U.S. population. Indians are six and one-half times more likely to die from alcoholism, six times more likely to die from tuberculosis, and three times more likely to die from diabetes. Nevertheless, Indian health care funding remains woefully inadequate.
Indian Country is also facing a drinking water crisis. According to IHS, safe and adequate water supply and waste disposal facilities are lacking in approximately 11 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native homes, compared to one percent for the U.S. general population. In some areas of Indian Country, this figure is as high as 35 percent.
The lack of a reliable potable water supply in Indian Country results in a high incidence of disease and infection attributable to waterborne contaminants. IHS estimates that for every dollar it spends on safe drinking water and sewage systems, it achieves at least a twentyfold return in health benefits. The agency estimates that the cost to provide all American Indians and Alaska Natives with safe drinking water and adequate sewage systems in their homes is over $2.3 billion.
In addition to inadequate safe drinking water and sewage systems throughout Indian Country, many tribes are facing water supply shortages. The cost of constructing the water supply infrastructure necessary to deliver water to these tribes would be an additional several billion dollars.
In order to begin to address the public safety and health care needs in Indian Country, Congress authorized $2,000,000,000 in appropriations for these priorities over a five-year period beginning October 1, 2008. See Sec. 601, P.L. 110-293. We request that you include this amount in this year's budget resolution.
Thank you for your consideration of this important matter.