Tribes continue work toward sex offender registration

By Susan Montoya Bryan
San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico (AP) August 2010

How the nation’s American Indian tribes can best implement sex offender registration and notification systems was the subject of a meeting among federal, state and tribal judicial officials Friday.

Dozens of judges, prosecutors, tribal leaders and police officers huddled together inside San Ildefonso Pueblo’s gymnasium, working on a problem facing tribes across the nation.

“It’s a really big deal throughout Indian Country. There are sovereignty issues and social impacts,” said Roman Duran, a tribal judge and lieutenant governor at Tesuque Pueblo and co-chair of the group that organized the forum, the New Mexico Tribal-State Judicial Consortium.

The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, named after the slain son of “America’s Most Wanted” television host John Walsh, requires convicted violent sex offenders to register with local authorities, increases punishments for some federal crimes against children and strengthens child pornography protections.

While it’s unclear how many sex offenders there are in Indian county, Assistant U.S. Attorney Chuck Barth of New Mexico said there are about 600,000 sex offenders nationwide who are required to register under federal law. About 100,000 of them are not registered, he said.

“That’s why this is a big concern,” he told the crowd.

The deadline to implement registration programs that comply with the act was at the end of July, but officials with the U.S. Department of Justice have granted one-year extensions to 184 tribes, including many in New Mexico.

Only two tribes – the confederated tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon and the Yakama Nation in Washington – have complied with the law, and a handful of others have opted out, meaning they will allow states to register sex offenders living or working in their jurisdictions.

One of the top hurdles faced by tribes in implementing the registration requirements is the cost of equipment needed to create a registry – which must contain everything from offender descriptions to fingerprints and DNA – and developing the technical expertise to maintain such a database.

At Zuni Pueblo in western New Mexico, Police Chief Tim Trimble has ordered a $51,000 palm scanner and fingerprint reader that will help the tribe comply with the federal registration law.

Many tribes also have to buy new computers, software for managing the registry and tracking offenders and modems for sharing the information.

Since many tribes in northern New Mexico are small, officials said they have started to talk about the possibility of sharing equipment.

Aside from the costs, tribal leaders also said they are carefully moving ahead to ensure their sovereignty is protected and that the systems they establish for dealing with sex offenders who live or work within their communities are culturally sensitive.

Duran said because most Indian communities are small and family and cultural connections are strong, it would be difficult for a sex offender to pick up and leave.

“Tribes are very cognizant of the safety issues, especially regarding children. So how do they create a system that doesn’t alienate an individual from their community and traditions? It’s a fine line we are walking and we try to balance that as best as we can,” he said.

Duran and others said their communities don’t have many sex offenders, but they see this as an opportunity for tribes to better analyze the different types of behavior occurring in their communities and develop social service programs that can help.

State District Judge Michael Vigil told the group that developing registries alone will not make their communities safer. He said supervision and treatment are essential for keeping offenders from getting in trouble.

Gene Fenton with the Isleta Pueblo Police Department said a successful registration program must also involve input from community members, not just judges, attorneys and police officers.

“We’ve got to work together. We’ve got to put this thing together all in one tiny, little circle and all help out,” Fenton said.