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Originally published on November 14, 2017 10:13 pm
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Let's hear what Native Americans think of the justice system. People in minority groups often perceive the justice system differently than others. And many statistics indicate minorities are targeted more often. A poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health offers a striking number.

In a survey of Native Americans living in majority native areas, half said they or a family member have been treated unfairly by the courts. You feel that sentiment when you visit the Wind River Reservation, as Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards did.

MELODIE EDWARDS, BYLINE: One morning earlier this year, Northern Arapaho member Rose was sitting at the table with her 14-year-old daughter Latoya.

ROSE: I told her to move her hair because she had her hair like this.

EDWARDS: Latoya hid her neck and cheek by pulling her hair in front.

ROSE: 'Cause I noticed something and she went like that. And she had marks, hickeys, completely covering her - almost even on her face.

EDWARDS: That's when Latoya told her mother that she had been forcibly kissed by a woman from another reservation who was six years older. Because they're afraid of retaliation, they asked that we use only their middle names.

ROSE: At that moment, I saw me and her and there was just nothing I could do for her except let her know that it's not her fault. It's ok, I'll protect you.

EDWARDS: Protect her because when Rose herself was 6, she too was molested by an older girl. Studies show that 1 in 3 Native American women are sexually assaulted in their life. But Rose wanted to stop that cycle. According to the NPR poll, 36 percent of Native Americans living in majority native areas say they avoid calling the police because of a fear of discrimination.

So Rose called tribal police, but they referred her to the FBI, since her tribe isn't qualified to handle felonies. But after an investigation, federal prosecutor Kerry Jacobson declined to pursue Latoya's case. Like most assaults, the case rested solely on the victim's testimony.

KERRY JACOBSON: The only allegations involve the subject touching the minor's lips, neck and upper chest and the knee and those areas do not fall within the definition of sexual contact.

EDWARDS: Jacobson says she recognizes that testifying against a perpetrator can be traumatic, and that's why she leaves cases like this one open as long as possible in case a victim wants to tell more later. But she says it's much harder to get convictions later.

JACOBSON: When a victim gets to a place where he or she feels safe enough and emotionally stable enough to divulge what happened, we have no scientific evidence left. Those are very challenging.

EDWARDS: Jacobson did not interview the alleged perpetrator or any witnesses. In fact, a recent Department of Justice report shows that federal courts decline to prosecute 67 percent of reservation sexual assault cases. And since Latoya's case was dropped, the tribal police have taken over. But unlike the feds, they moved forward, issuing a warrant for the subject's arrest.

The problem is the tribal court can only issue misdemeanors, less than a year in jail. Leslie Shakespeare is a councilman for the Eastern Shoshone, the other tribe on Wind River. He wants to use the recently passed federal legislation called the Tribal Law and Order Act to do more. That law grants tribes the power to give stiffer sentences and do it faster.

LESLIE SHAKESPEARE: The wait is what really disenfranchises people. So when you they see that process happening quicker, which doesn't always happen on the federal side, they feel like justice is actually working.

EDWARDS: Shakespeare says the new law's motivating the two Wind River tribes to work together to create a stronger, unified court. Rose hopes that means her daughter Latoya's alleged assailant will finally face real justice.

ROSE: That's the whole thing. She's somewhere. And she's probably somewhere doing this to another 14-year-old.

EDWARDS: The new court is scheduled to be up and running by next year. For NPR News, I'm Melodie Edwards on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.