Tribal Crime and Justice: Public Law 280

In 1953, Congress gave six states — Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon and Wisconsin — criminal jurisdiction over tribal members and other people on reservations. This legislation, known as PL 280, also permitted other states to opt for similar jurisdiction. Tribal consent was not required, and tribes were not consulted.

PL 280 drastically altered criminal justice in American Indian and Alaska Native communities. Prior to PL 280, criminal jurisdiction was shared between federal and tribal governments, with little interference from state governments.

Consequences of PL 280. Most notably, PL 280 has had a number of negative consequences for tribes:

  • The act violates tribal sovereignty by giving states criminal jurisdiction.
  • The act is often cited as a rationale for denying PL 280 tribes funding for law enforcement.
  • The act gives nontribal law enforcement greater authority on tribal reservations. For example, prior to PL 280, minor crimes committed by American Indian and Alaska Natives were the responsibility of the tribes. Under PL 280, minor crimes can be penalized under state laws as well.

Public Law 280’s impact on crime is largely unknown. This is because crime in associated jurisdictions is often underreported or not reported, according to a study released in 1998. The researchers examined how PL 280 has affected crime and law enforcement on reservations and made recommendations for future tribal-state relationships.

Ongoing Research on Public Law 280

Forthcoming research on PL 280 will determine whether tribes:

  • Receive available, effective law enforcement from their states.
  • Have had difficulty prosecuting offenders and keeping crime rates low.
  • Have found cooperative agreements and retrocession (i.e., removal from PL 280 jurisdiction) useful for addressing problems encountered under PL 280.
Date Created: May 19, 2008