Justice at a distance may very well be justice denied.
That's why it's important to recognize and study the recent work done by the Tribal Law and Order Commission, mandated by federal law to study justice on the reservation and come up with policy suggestions. The commission has spent the last two years working on a report -- a roadmap -- for policymakers about law and order on reservations across the U.S.
Their findings and suggestions should form the framework of how Wyoming, among other states, moves forward with tribal law enforcement to make this place a safer, more just place to live.
The commission was critical of how federal and state justice systems work (or don't) with native law enforcement. It found that those on the reservation face a jurisdiction maze that often circumvents tribal justice, even when the local system has the capacity and ability to handle great responsibility. It's not always that the federal and state systems maliciously circumvent tribal justice. But trust in reservation law enforcement and courts must be built hand in hand with their capacity to enforce the law.
In Wyoming, a state whose citizens generally espouse local control and power, it's much the same. The Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho tribes both have facilities to deal with misdemeanors and petty crimes. But with no federal courts close by, serious crimes must be dealt with in Casper or Cheyenne, 120 and 300 miles from the Wind River Indian Reservation, respectively. The situation makes for a non-diverse jury pool and poses logistical difficulties for tribal members who want a fair trial. For more than half the year, it's a good bet a route to Cheyenne from Riverton will be closed at some point just due to weather.
The Tribal Law and Order Commission's work fills an important gap and provides some critical suggestions. It won't be an easy task to reform how things are done. The jurisdictional maze has its roots in a hodgepodge of laws that sometimes work at cross purposes and date back to the 1800s.
We hope both state and federal policymakers take the issue seriously and take the lead on making things better. There's lots of work to do.