Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation speaks at the Bangor Daily News office on Jan. 30, 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Maine’s tribes won expanded jurisdiction over certain domestic violence and sexual violence crimes committed on their land in the $1.5 trillion spending bill signed into law by President Joe Biden on Friday.

The Violence Against Women Act expired in 2018 after Congress failed to renew it. While programs continued to be funded, Maine’s tribes have not been covered by the law because of a 1980 land-claims settlement between three of the tribes, Maine and the federal government that prevented them from benefiting from national programs unless specifically included.

A 2019 attempt to reauthorize the law was defeated after national gun rights advocates opposed language that would have prevented people previously convicted of stalking from possessing guns. A bill that would have re-upped VAWA and included the Maine tribes passed the House last year, but was never taken up by the Senate.

But the issue resurfaced in the spending bill that included similar language, giving them more authority than allowed under Maine law through a 2020 bill brokered between tribes and Gov. Janet Mills. It is a significant extension of tribal rights in Maine as the Legislature contemplates whether to change the 1980 federal agreement or make different concessions in state law.

“The Penobscot Nation’s law enforcement and court systems are capable of implementing the criminal jurisdiction provisions within VAWA, but have just been left out of the underlying law,” said Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis in a statement. “This error has finally been corrected, and we will now be able to use all the resources available to protect Native women, children and public safety officers located on our lands.”

The bill allows tribes to have jurisdiction over dating violence and domestic violence crimes and restores authority over crimes such as child violence, sexual violence, stalking, sex trafficking and assault of police officers, according to a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs brief.

That part of the spending bill also boosts grant funding for related programs and reestablishes the Bureau of Prisons Tribal Prisoner Program, along with codifying a program allowing tribes access to criminal information databases.

The spending bill was supported by all four members of Maine’s delegation. Sen. Susan Collins, the sole Republican in Maine’s delegation, pushed for the House language to be included in previous Senate versions of the bill, Collins’ office said.

Francis specifically thanked U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District who has pushed in previous years for the state’s tribes to be included in the reauthorization along with this year’s budget language inclusion.

“I’m thrilled this long-overdue correction has finally become law,” Pingree said.