GAO Responds to Lawmakers Request Letter for Study on Inequitable Justice System Facing Tribal Nations

Huffman, Padilla, Murkowski, Merkley requested investigation on impact of broken justice system in PL-280 states

July 19, 2023

Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Representative Jared Huffman (CA-02), U.S. Senators Alex Padilla (D-CA), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) shared the response they received from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting they examine the criminal justice outcomes in states that have jurisdiction over tribal lands as a result of Public Law 83-280 (PL-280).

In the response letter, GAO committed to reviewing PL-280 and have assigned the task to the organization’s Managing Director of Homeland Security and Justice. GAO committed to continued coordination with the lawmakers in the coming months.

“For over 70 years, PL-280 has led to under-resourcing and extraneous jurisdictional red tape that puts the safety of tribes at risk and fuels the MMIP crisis. It’s time we take a serious look at this law and rectify the damage it has caused to tribal communities,” said Representative Huffman. “I’m glad the Governmental Accountability Office heeded our call to finally review this broken system. It’s the first step in what will be a long – but necessary – journey to resolve this deeply rooted injustice and its subsequent impacts. I also want to thank the Yurok Tribe in my district for their resolute leadership to bring an end to not only this malpractice, but the many injustices tribes endure country wide.”

“We are encouraged to see the Government Accountability Office commit to carrying out a study to assess the impact of Public Law 280 on Tribes and the safety of our people. Thanks to the courageous advocacy of Senator Padilla, Congressman Huffman, and legislators from across the country, for the first time since its inception 70 years ago, the effects of PL 280 will be examined. The GAO research report is a step in the right direction to address the harms of PL-280 on Tribal public safety and on states who were also left without resources. We must understand PL-280 before we can address its impacts on federal resources for our courts, law enforcement, and public safety systems,” said Yurok Tribe Chairman Joe James.

“I am pleased that the Government Accountability Office is acting on our request to examine how Tribal Nations are impacted by PL-280,” said Senator Padilla. “When complete, this report will give Congress the tools to close the justice gap faced by Tribes across the country, particularly to combat the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Crisis.”

“Tribal leaders and victim service advocates have called for greater resources and additional tools to address public safety and justice in Alaska Native communities for decades,” said Senator Murkowski. “PL-280 poses unique obstacles to tribal law enforcement. And when more than one in three Alaska Native villages have no law enforcement, more must be done to support a sustainable public safety system in rural Alaska. I look forward to GAO’s report on justice outcomes in Native communities as a result of PL-280.”

“I am constantly hearing from Tribal leaders in Oregon about their law enforcement needs and how Public Law 280 has impacted their ability to be effective first responders in their communities,” said Senator Merkley. “It’s a positive step that GAO will begin this study, and I hope it will shine light on their concerns.”

Full text of the GAO’s response letter is available here.

Full text of the lawmakers’ initial letter is available here.