FARMINGTON — The number of federal prosecutions of tribal crimes dropped more than 13 percent in 2013 as a result of the budget sequestration that year, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report.
The sequestration was intended to force Congress to agree on a budget with the threat of across-the-board cuts to most federal programs, including everything from social services to defense. When lawmakers failed to agree, the cuts went into effect.
Federal prosecutors brought a total of 1,462 cases to federal court in fiscal year 2013, according to the Justice Department's second annual report on Indian Country investigations and prosecutions. Between fiscal year 2009 and fiscal year 2012, the number of cases filed against defendants on Indian Country increased nearly 54 percent, the report states.
However, the number of cases filed against defendants in 2013 fell from 1,677 cases in 2012. The report states this is a result of fiscal constraints that resulted from the 2013 budget sequestration.
"Due to these budgetary challenges, the Department saw the first decrease (13 percent) in the number of cases filed since it began its Indian Country crime fighting initiative in 2009," the report states.
Nationwide prosecutors bring cases to federal court through the Major Crimes Act and General Crimes Act, which grants the federal government jurisdiction to prosecute some crimes that occur on sovereign tribal lands.
Nationwide, prosecutors declined to pursue 853, or 34 percent, of the cases that were referred to prosecutors by the FBI. Fifty-six percent of those cases were declined because of insufficient evidence. Another 21 percent were declined because they were referred to another prosecuting agency.
The Albuquerque division of the FBI closed a total of 221 Indian Country criminal investigations in 2013, the fourth highest number in the nation. Almost 40 percent of those cases were closed administratively and not referred to the New Mexico U.S. Attorney's Office for prosecution.
The report quotes a 2009 Senate report acknowledging that the cases closed administratively "likely reflect difficulties caused by the justice system in place," including the "lack of police on the ground in Indian Country" and "shortfalls for training, forensics equipment, (and) personnel."
Assault and sexual assault investigations were the least likely to result in prosecution in New Mexico and nationwide.
The report notes sexual assault and physical assault cases are difficult to prosecute, regardless of where they occur.
"Sexual assault crimes typically are committed outside the presence of witnesses and some rapes, including child molestation crimes, frequently lack corroborating physical evidence," the report notes.
Sexual assault and child molestation cases that occur on Indian Country pose unique challenges to prosecutors, according to the report. Victims and witnesses may be reluctant to travel long distances outside of their communities to testify, and federal investigators and prosecutors may not be able to build the rapport and trust necessary to encourage victims to see the case to its conclusion, the report states.
The report notes the data represents only those offenses reported to the FBI and federal prosecutors, not those crimes adjudicated in tribal justice systems or at the state level. The report also does not include cases investigated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The U.S. Attorney's Office of New Mexico could not be reached for comment.