Editorial: Congress should not delay in passing Savanna's Act

By:  The Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board
Source: The Yakima Herald-Republic

Usually, in those bill-signing photo-ops with pen-wielding Gov. Jay Inslee, everyone gathered behind him is smiling — advocates who pushed for legislation, lawmakers who guided it through the process — perhaps out of a mingling of pride and relief.

But in late April, when Inslee signed a bill sponsored by Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, that creates two liaison positions with the Washington State Patrol and requires that agency to develop best practices in dealing with missing and murdered indigenous women in the state, the optics were much different.

The visages of Native American activists, many in traditional dress, can best be described as solemnly grim and steadfastly determined. Even the pols who pushed through the legislation, in their traditional business garb, are uncharacteristically subdued — Mosbrucker at Inslee’s left shoulder showing just the faintest trace of wistful smile.

And, after the signing, Mosbrucker explained why to reporters: “This is not a Washington (state) problem, it’s a nationwide problem.”

True. Washington state’s new measures, needed as they are, are merely one piece of a much-larger problem that extends across the nation, from the Paiutes in California to the Penobscots in Maine. Only when there is a cohesive national plan to combat alarming rates of violence against indigenous women and multi-agency coordination to solve cases of missing and murdered women will there be reason to smile.

Congress needs to swiftly pass a bill recently reintroduced, dubbed Savanna’s Act, that would require, among other things, standardized guidelines among law enforcement for responding to missing and murdered indigenous women, mandate that U.S. attorneys consult with tribes on training and assistance for tribal police, and increase tribal access to federal crime databases.

There is no reason why this legislation, officially called S.277, should not breeze through the two congressional chambers without a hitch. Yes, but this is an oft- dysfunctional Congress, so nothing is certain. Its predecessor, the 115th Congress, should have already passed Savanna’s Act last fall, but petty politics buried it.

Savanna’s Act — so named in honor of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, murdered in North Dakota in 2017 — was passed unanimously in the Senate last December and moved to the House, where it appeared to have bipartisan support. But, in a bizarre and as-yet unexplained twist, a single representative, Republican Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, then the House Judiciary Committee chairman, would not move forward on the bill. Outgoing North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, then the bill’s sponsor, took to Twitter and posted a withering thread assailing Goodlatte’s stalling tactics, for which he did not give a reason, other than one of his aides telling a reporter that the representative “had issues with the language” of the bill.

Here we are months later. Heitkamp was defeated in a re-election bid. Goodlatte retired from the House. And the country still has no unified and effective plan to address the problem of murdered and missing indigenous women. The numbers, after all, are sobering: The National Institute of Justice found that more than four out of five Native American women have experienced violence in their lives; in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that homicide is the third leading cause of death among Native American women between the ages of 10 and 24; the Department of Justice has reported Native American women are 10 times more likely to be murdered than other Americans.

Fortunately, Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, have resurrected Heitkamp’s legislation. It figures to once more breeze through in a Senate vote, and with Democrats in control of the House — and its Judiciary Committee — it in all likelihood will be approved there, as well.

Then again, nothing is certain —including President Donald Trump’s signature if Savanna’s Act reaches his desk.

Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, long an advocate for beefed up enforcement efforts concerning violence against Native American women, spoke this week to the urgency of the bill’s passage: “We are experiencing this crisis and it is time that this report be a wakeup call to action. We can no longer ignore these huge numbers, but we need to find answers. Right now, hours and days can be wasted in responding to this. Savanna’s Act will streamline the protocols and process between our tribes and law enforcement agencies, which means swifter action and at a more rapid pace.”

Cantwell also is among 16 bipartisan legislators calling for the Government Accountability Office to conduct a review of how federal agencies respond — or don’t respond — to the crisis and recommend solutions.

Historically, the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women has mostly been ignored. More recently, there has been interest and efforts, but they have been sorely lacking in coordination and effectiveness. Tribal agencies have been understaffed and overwhelmed throughout the country, and jurisdictional issues have hamstrung joint efforts.

When a crime happens on or adjacent to tribal lands, there often is confusion between agencies — tribal, local and police, the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Such jurisdictional vagueness has led to investigations falling through the cracks and prosecution delayed.

Congress’ passage of Savanna’s Act, just like Washington state’s newly signed legislation, won’t solve the problem. But it is a major step toward getting to a solution.