Navajo lawmakers stiffen criminal penalties

Posted: Updated:

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- Navajo lawmakers voted Thursday to stiffen penalties for crimes on the reservation, more than a decade after the tribe eliminated or reduced penalties for nearly 30 offenses.

Navajos who are found guilty of shoplifting, abandoning a child, receiving stolen property, or committing burglary or fraud could face jail time or fines under the bill. The measure will go to Navajo President Ben Shelly for consideration.

New jails and the confirmation of a handful of judges gave the tribe an opening to reconsider penalties so that the Navajo Nation isn't viewed as being soft on crime, said the bill's sponsor, Alton Shepherd.

"The consequences will be there," he said.

Shepherd faced opposition from colleagues who questioned the cost of incarcerating people and the need for resources, like drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, and mental health services that could help deter criminal activity.

"This becomes an unfunded mandate, and the next council has to find money to increase the budget for this," said lawmaker Leonard Tsosie.

Shepherd said he's hoping to use the law, if approved by Shelly, as a tool to seek additional funding from the federal government for police, jails and rehabilitative services.

While some crimes carried no jail time or fines under tribal law, judges could sentence offenders to probation, community service or restitution.

Jail time and fines would be added for some crimes under the measure, while the penalties are increased for others. The measure allows for rehabilitative treatment, electronic monitoring, payment for detention and creative approaches to restore harmony to be added to the list of possible sentences.

Under the measure, people who possess liquor on the Navajo Nation, for example, would be fined $500 on the first offense - up from $50. A conviction for receiving stolen property could net a punishment of 180 days in jail and a $500 fine.

The tribe can prosecute only misdemeanor crimes that carry a maximum penalty of a year in jail and $5,000 in fines upon conviction. Federal authorities can prosecute felony crimes on American Indian reservations that carry much harsher sentences.

The council continues its two-day special session Friday in Window Rock. Still on the agenda are proposals to impose a junk food tax, and to address term limits for the tribal president and lawmakers.

Lawmakers on Thursday sent another bill supporting a divide of land at Fort Wingate in northwestern New Mexico between the Navajo and Zuni tribes back to a council committee. Clara Pratte, the director of the tribe's Washington, D.C., office, said the issue is unlikely to be considered in Congress this year, given the time the Navajo Nation has taken to consider its stance.

An effort to resurrect a bill that would let Navajos decide which political candidates are fluent in the tribe's language failed, ending any hope that Chris Deschene had for jumping back into the presidential race. He was disqualified after failing to show he could speak fluent Navajo.

"To get back into this race, this was absolutely the fatal shot," said Deschene spokeswoman Stacy Pearson.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.