The Navajo Nation has a sweeping new victim’s rights law

On the Navajo Nation, when an alleged perpetrator of domestic violence is released from detention, there is no guarantee that the victim will be notified promptly by tribal law officials.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Crotty said the issue became evident during the peak of COVID-19, when she heard from domestic violence victims about how their perpetrators had shown up on their doorstep without warning, leaving them terrified or traumatized.

But that is changing, thanks to the Navajo Nation Victim’s Rights Act of 2023, a law that will provide victims of sexual assault and rape, domestic violence and other violent assaults with the protection and support they need as they wait for justice.

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Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren signed the act into law on Sept. 6. It expands the rights of victims and their families and assures victims receive adequate support, proper notice and vital resources. 

“This is a strong starting point to show the victims and their loved ones that we hear their voices, that we understand their concerns, and that we care as lawmakers and members of the communities in which these crimes are committed,” Crotty said in a press release announcing the passage of the legislation.

“We stand with the victims, families, and advocates who have fought for these amendments to our laws for far too long,” she added. 

The new law clearly defines the meaning of a “victim” and “advocate.” It also clarifies what “without consent” means in relation to sexual assault and rape crimes, which has created barriers for many victims and families, according to the Navajo Nation Council.

“This is a critical step in the fight to provide more support and resources for our Navajo people, who are victimized and awaiting justice and healing,” Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley said.

The new law also shows victims that they have rights on the Navajo Nation, Crotty said, and that they now have access to resources and advocates who will help them through the process. 

For instance, if a victim needs help to obtain a police report for a protection order or help to work with the detention center to get an update on their case, this new act provides them the advocate service they would need to do so.

“If you were a victim of crime on the Navajo Nation, you should have a right to have that information,” Crotty said, adding that the new law guarantees victims some of these standard victim rights like the right to be notified of court proceedings or to be heard at sentencing their case.

Crotty sponsored the bill and carried it through the legislative process but noted that it resulted from a culmination of years of work among victim advocates, victims of crimes, multiple Indigenous-led organizations, law enforcement officials and tribal leaders.

“As leaders, we have to continue to do more to provide support for our people and to ensure that resources are available to enact and enforce these provisions,” Crotty said.

During the signing, Nygren shared that he has seen firsthand the impacts of living in an environment where domestic violence exists and how children have no control over what is happening.

He said that made it easy for him to sign this measure into law, because it will ensure that tribal leaders will continue to protect and be there for Navajo people who don’t have access to resources. 

“People who didn’t have a voice have a voice now,” Nygren said. 

Crotty said the next steps include working with the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, especially the office of the prosecutor, to build a response to the crimes impacting the Navajo Nation.

In addition, the new law includes language that spells out the rights of victims of sexual assault and rape, domestic violence and other violent assaults. 

Here is a rundown of some new language introduced in the new law:

  • To participate in the criminal justice system by being present and heard, which includes proceedings involving release, plea, sentencing, or any parole proceeding.
  • To confer with the prosecution after the crime against the victim(s) has been charged, before the trial, or before any disposition of the case and to be informed of the disposition.
  • To be provided information about the sentencing and imprisonment of the accused perpetrator and to read pre-sentence reports relating to the crime against the victims at the time such reports are available to the defendant(s).
  • To provide a victim impact statement to the court, which the court is required to consider in making sentencing determinations and restoring k’é.
  • To be notified of a perpetrator’s or the accused’s release not less than 24 hours prior to such release.
  • To be timely notified of court proceedings.
  • To be notified within less than 48 hours of the crime being reported of their rights and be provided information relating to how the case will move forward and the services that are available to the victim.
  • To receive prompt restitution from the person or persons convicted of the criminal conduct that caused the victim’s loss or injury and have restitution orders enforced.
  • To be free of intimidation, harassment, abuse, and uninitiated contact from the accused or individuals in close relation to the accused.
  • To request and utilize the services of an interpreter or translator if needed.
  • To the presumption of the imposition of pre-trial release conditions in favor of protecting a victim, including but not limited to a stay-away order.

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