Tribal News: Public Safety Committee advocates for new jails, more law enforcement, and funding increases

Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho, left) speaks with Navajo Nation Council representatives Hope McDonald-Lone Tree (center) and Rex Lee Jim, who serves as Chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho, left) speaks with Navajo Nation Council representatives Hope McDonald-Lone Tree (center) and Rex Lee Jim, who serves as Chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - More law enforcement officers, new jails and court buildings and more federal funding for public safety were the Navajo Nation's main priorities during congressional visits last week.

"We're asking Congress to oppose President Bush's low budget requests for law enforcement and jail construction," said Rex Lee Jim, who serves as chairman of the Public Safety Committee. The president is charged with submitting his budget for federal programs to Congress each year.

Public Safety Committee members met with U.S. Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) as he heard concerns of closed jails, cooks sometimes serving as jailers, and the loss of Navajo police officers leaving to work for other law enforcement agencies.

"We have instances where inmates are being transported from Tuba City to Window Rock for incarceration, then back to Tuba City for arraignment, and then to Gallup for longer incarceration," explained Jim during his meetings with Senate and House offices this week.

The Tuba City detention facility was shut down in 2006. Until a new detention facility in Tuba City is constructed, the Navajo Nation has an agreement with McKinley County to house up to 20 inmates.

"Two of our detention facilities are closed," explained Jim, "and conditions in our other detention facilities are bleak." The Navajo Nation is now down to a total of 59 beds to house both short and long term inmates.

Summarized in the Navajo message to Congress is the need to increase spending for detention facility construction to $50 million. In President Bush's budget request to Congress, a total of $8 million is proposed.

"There's funding for public safety buildings in the BIA budget," said Jim in a meeting with Senate and House staff. "But tribes like Navajo, which are on contract with the government, are lower in priority and rarely receive money."

Priority in federal funding is usually given to BIA law enforcement buildings. With the current $14 million available to be shared nationally among tribes, the money is used mainly for maintenance and repairs, not new construction.

In a separate meeting with the U.S. Department of Justice, the Public Safety Committee members inquired to the attorney for tribal justice on the status of the Senate mandated one-year report that is due this December. Last year the U.S. Senate ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to review the existing state of both detention and court facilities on the Navajo Nation. Once complete the Justice Department will report back to Congress.

This Senate mandate and report, which focuses on Navajo Nation detention and court facilities, was initiated by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) last year as he worked to fund the construction of the proposed Navajo Supreme Court facility.

Since appropriations are routinely reserved for new construction, the recommendation in the

Senate appropriations bill became a review mandate. It was Sen. Domenici's compromise to begin funding initiatives to build the Navajo Nation Supreme Court.

Currently the Navajo law enforcement department for the Crownpoint district is working with McKinley County in a cross-jurisdictional agreement where Navajo police and Sheriff deputies exercise enforcement powers.

"We have some of the most severe manpower shortages in law enforcement," said Thoreau Council Delegate Edmund Yazzie. "What we've done in New Mexico for our police, said Yazzie, "is to deputized sheriff deputies to serve as police officers in Navajo while they've commissioned our officers to enforce laws in the county."

The ratio of police officers per thousand is less than one officer in comparison to the national average of 2.5.

"There are 44,000 criminal convictions every year," added Hope MacDonald-LoneTree, council delegate for Coalmine Canyon and Toh Nanees Dizi chapters. "Yet we only have 59 bed spaces. We're grateful for the support of public safety issues by the Senate Indian Affairs committee, but we need $50 million for jail construction."

Also during their visit Jim and Council Delegate Yazzie joined the Navajo Judiciary Committee via video conference from the Navajo Nation Washington Office for a legislative oversight meeting. The Public Safety and Judiciary committees work together in making requests to Congress.

Members of both the Public Safety and Judiciary Committees plan to return to Washington next month to meet with more Senate offices and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

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