Federal government takes new role to fight crime on Mille Lacs reservation

Published 10:16 am Wednesday, January 13, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS — The federal government has agreed to assume greater responsibility for prosecuting crimes on the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s reservation at the request of the tribal government, the Justice Department and Mille Lacs Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin announced Tuesday.

Benjamin said in her annual state-of-the-band address that it means people who commit the worst crimes on the reservation in east-central Minnesota will go to federal prison, instead of state prison, and will face longer sentences.

“We need this message to go out to drug dealers, gang members and anyone intent on committing violent crimes on our lands: We will catch you, and when we do, you are going to Leavenworth, not Stillwater — and you are not getting out for a very, very long time,” Benjamin said.  “Tell the dealers, if you don’t want to go to federal prison, get off our lands now, and stay out.”

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While the federal government already has the power to prosecute drug trafficking on the reservation and anywhere else in the country, the Justice Department said the agreement broadens federal jurisdiction to cover other serious crimes such as murder, rape, felony assault and felony child abuse. The change takes effect Jan. 1, 2017.

This is only the second time that the Justice Department has assumed shared criminal jurisdiction over a reservation under the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act, the agency said. The first was at the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota in 2013.

“We believe this decision — made after a careful review of the tribe’s application and the facts on the ground — will strengthen public safety and the criminal justice system serving the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said in a statement.

Unlike in past years, Benjamin’s speech was closed to nonmembers. She wrote on the tribal government website beforehand: “There are times when families sit down together and have a frank talk about the realities going on around them — a time when problems must be clearly stated — and family issues must be dealt with by the family.” The tribe released the text of her address.

Benjamin told The Associated Press afterward that heroin and other opiates are having a devastating impact on the community. She pointed out that Mille Lacs is the first reservation north of the Twin Cities, so it’s sometimes the first stop for drug dealers making deliveries.

The new partnership with federal prosecutors will enhance tribal sovereignty by making more resources available to fight the problem rather than having to rely on overburdened county attorneys, she said.

County attorneys typically prosecute felonies on Minnesota’s other reservations, although the federal government has long had primary jurisdiction for the most serious crimes on the Red Lake and Bois Fort reservations.

The main impact of the new arrangement is likely to be its deterrent effect, said the Mille Lacs Band’s solicitor general, Todd Matha.