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Tribal Crime and Justice

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The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 (TLOA; P.L. 111-211, 124 Stat. 2258 § 251(b)) requires BJS to establish and implement a tribal crime data-collection system, and support tribal participation in national records and information systems. The Act specifies data collection and analysis of crimes committed on federally recognized reservations, in tribal communities, and on identified trust lands which in combination are commonly referred to as Indian country. There are approximately 326 federally recognized tribal lands in the continental United States, with an estimated population of 4.6 million persons, of which 23% are American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN).

For crimes committed in Indian country, jurisdiction over criminal justice administration varies by the type and seriousness of the crime, whether the offender or victim is a tribal member, and the location of the offense. Crimes committed in Indian country among AIANs may be subject to concurrent jurisdiction by tribal, federal, state, or local criminal justice agencies. This is due to the sovereign status of federally recognized tribes and to Public Law 83-280 (commonly referred to as P.L. 280).

Tribal Justice Statistics Program

To meet the requirements of TLOA and to accurately measure indicators of the administration of justice in Indian country, the Tribal Justice Statistics Program (TJSP) uses a multi-measure approach, including—

The 2024 Census of Tribal Law Enforcement Agencies (CTLEA) and 2024 Census of Tribal Court Systems (CTCS), conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the statistical agency for the U.S. Department of Justice, will collect information from all tribal law enforcement agencies and tribal court systems serving federally recognized tribes. BJS is working with the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), and IACP’s Indian Country Law Enforcement Section (ICLES) to develop the 2024 CTLEA and 2024 CTCS. 

As part of our efforts to engage with tribes on the development of these important data collections, BJS will host a series of webinars to learn from tribal leaders and the tribal justice community to seek valuable input on data gaps and needs. A panel of tribal justice experts will also be instituted to inform development of the CTLEA and CTCS surveys and data collection protocols.

During the summer of 2024, all federally recognized tribes will be contacted to provide updated information on the existence of tribal law enforcement agencies and court systems, as well as information for the point of contact.

For additional information on the new tribal justice data collections and the project in general, visit the project pages hosted by NORC:

P.L. 280 applies in 16 states. The law permits the federal government to transfer mandatory jurisdiction over major crimes in Indian country to the state, and it permits the state to acquire optional jurisdiction, in whole or in part, over Indian country within their boundaries. Six states have established mandatory jurisdiction over crimes in Indian country, and 10 states have established optional jurisdictions.

In the 19 states with federally recognized tribes where P.L. 280 does not apply, the federal government retains criminal jurisdiction for major crimes committed in Indian country. More than 300 tribes are under P.L. 280 jurisdictions.

For more information on P.L. 280, see the U.S. Department of Interior, Indian Affairs, Frequently Asked Questions page.


Terms & Definitions

Indian country

Statutory term that includes all lands within an Indian reservation, dependent Indian communities, and Indian trust allotments (18 U.S.C. § 1151). Courts interpret section 1151 to include all lands held in trust for tribes or their members. See United States v. Roberts, 185 F.3d 1125 (10th Cir. 1999). Prior to July 29, 2010, tribal authority to imprison American Indian or Alaska Native offenders had been limited by statute (25 U.S.C. § 1302) to 1 year, a $5,000 fine, or both per offense. On July 29, 2010, the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 was signed into law, expanding the sentencing authority of tribal courts. As a result, offenders may serve potentially longer sentences (up to 3 years per offense and up to 9 years per multioffense case) in correctional facilities in Indian country (P.L. 111–211, H.R. 725, 124 Stat. 2258).

Indian country jails

Indian country adult and juvenile detention centers, jails, and other correctional facilities operated by tribal authorities or the Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Public Law 83-280 (commonly referred to as Public Law 280 or P.L. 280)

Establishes criminal justice responsibilities among American Indian tribes with tribal land, the states in which tribes are located, and the federal government. Public Law 280 is mandatory or optional for 204 tribes, about two-thirds of the total in the lower 48 states. In states where P.L. 280 does not apply, the federal government retains criminal jurisdiction for major crimes committed under the Indian Country Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. § 1152), the Indian Country Major Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. § 1153), and the Assimilative Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. § 13).

Public Law 93-638

The Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975 affords tribes the opportunity to provide for their own police departments and other institutional services through federal grants and contracts.