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For Native Americans, sexual assault cases are ‘falling through the cracks’

Nearly 2 out of 3 cases of sexual assault in the U.S. go unreported. A recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows that fears of discrimination and unfair treatment by courts prevent Native Americans from reporting these crimes. Wyoming Public Radio reporter Melodie Edwards joins Hari Sreenivasan via Skype to discuss the issue.

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  • HARI SREENIVISAN:

    In the United States, two out of three alleged sexual assaults are not even reported to police. That’s according to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network using numbers from Justice Department service. A new poll by NPR highlights why sexual assaults on Native American reservations in the U.S. may be underreported. 36% of Native Americans living in majority native areas say they avoid calling the police because of fear of discrimination. 50% say they or a family member feel they’ve been treated unfairly by the courts. Wyoming Public Radio reporter Melodie Edwards joins me via Skype from Laramie, Wyoming to discuss this. What’s underlying this hesitation to come forward with a crime?

  • MELODIE EDWARDS:

    Well there is a long history of mistrust between Native American tribes and the federal government. And so it has moved up into modern times where it’s unclear who is handling a case – whether it’s tribal police or whether it is the FBI. And that, in fact, there’s just a lot of people falling through the cracks.

  • HARI SREENIVISAN:

    So in the case of certain tribes, do they lack the jurisdiction to be able to actually prosecute a felony or a serious crime does that automatically fall to a federal authority?

  • MELODIE EDWARDS:

    The tribes that I know best are the two tribes that live on Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and they’re working on some solutions to try and figure this out but right now what the situation is, is that if they have a felony like a sexual assault then that case must go to the FBI. And oftentimes those cases are dropped. 67% of sexual assault cases in some reservations do end up being declined by prosecutors. So then those crimes might be able to go on to tribal courts but tribal courts can’t try felonies. And so in the case of a story that I covered that perpetrator will then only be able to be sentenced with a misdemeanor of under a year.

  • HARI SREENIVISAN:

    Wow. That’s shocking that you do something like that. Just kind of a misdemeanor. We’re having this national conversation about sexual assault and abuse and #MeToo. When you go out to places in rural Wyoming or onto a reservation, does any of this filter out there?

  • MELODIE EDWARDS:

    No there’s really not yet. I’m hoping that that will eventually happen but it’s even just in rural Wyoming. It’s hard to get the word out and to create that sense of safety for people to feel like they can come forward. That there’s going to be the numbers of women to come forward together. That feeling of unity among victims that they can feel like they can step forward and voice their their stories.

  • HARI SREENIVISAN:

    All right. Melody Edwards of Wyoming Public Radio joining us via Skype from Laramie today. Thanks so much.

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