A new report from the MacArthur Foundation shows that Native American people are incarcerated at rates up to seven times higher than White people in the United States.
The report, “Over-incarceration of Native Americans: Roots, Inequities, and Solutions” highlights the alarming incarceration disparities can be based on race and ethnicity.
Further, American Indians and Alaska Natives are overrepresented in the prison population in 19 states and are sentenced more harshly compared to White, African American and Hispanic people.
The report was written by Ciara Hansen, Shawnee and Cherokee, Desiree Fox, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and Ann Miller, an attorney with the Tribal Defenders Office of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The report both highlights the inequality of the American justice system, but also highlights the progress that tribes are making to address the issue.
Hansen said it was important to publish the report and it is a great step at addressing and examining the issue of over-incarceration of Native people.
“I hope that not only do we increase awareness about the uniqueness of Native populations, which means the unique barriers, but also the unique resiliency factors,” she said. “I hope that what can be gleaned from the report is that there's lots of resilience within Native communities and if we are to move forward in addressing kind of this mass incarceration problem as a nation, and as tribal communities, I hope that the message is that we already have a lot of resilience and we're already doing a lot of things right.”
Fox echoed those sentiments, adding that she hopes the report also shines a light on practices some tribes have already implemented in its respective communities.
“What we're trying to communicate with this though, and I think a continuation of that is just highlighting the over reliance on a punitive system that we know doesn't work,” Fox said. “We know putting people in jail and fining people who don't have money to begin with, like none of that actually works. And I think most people agree with that.”
Bria Gillum, a senior program officer at MacArthur, said in the press release from the foundation that the report highlights the “painful and unacceptable treatment of Native people in the criminal justice system.”
“It is our hope that the report contributes to the growing conversation about racial disparities in this broken system, sparks deeper collaboration between state and tribal agencies, and leads to investments in diversion services that can end this devastating cycle,” Gillum said.
The press release highlighted key findings, including:
- According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 45 percent of people incarcerated in tribal jails were being held pretrial, and pretrial detention rose by at least by 80 percent since 1999. The average length of stay doubled from 2002 to 2018.
- The number of jails in Indian Country has increased by 25 percent since 2000, which has led to filling them with more people charged and held with petty crimes for longer periods of time.
- The 2020 Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed tribal jail incarceration rates steadily increased by 60 percent since 2000. The most recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, however, has shown a significant reduction of incarceration in tribal jails during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Additionally, the most serious offense for 16 percent of people held in tribal jails was public intoxication and 15 percent were held for drug related or DUI charges, the report states. Native youth are more likely to face conviction in adult court, especially for drug-related crimes.
While writing the report, Hansen said the trio of authors struggled to nail down what they thought the audience needed to hear and that they needed to provide historical context to help people understand the nuances of federal Indian law along with tribal and federal jurisdiction.
“That part is so integral to understanding this kind of modern issue,” Hansen said. “One of the reasons why people aren't more active in advocating for this change is because it's so difficult to understand.”
Among the tribes listed in the report which are providing innovative approaches to criminal justice systems include the Kanaitze Indian Tribe in Alaska, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Michigan and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation In Oklahoma, among others.
For example, the latter has an intensive reintegration program where “services begin pre-release and address all aspects of reentry including financial assistance, career development, culturally relevant programming, supervision, and legal counsel,” the report states.
Hill has been practicing law for more than 25 years and while she unfortunately wasn’t surprised by the report’s findings, one of her main takeaways is that tribes are coming up with solutions that best serve their populations.
“We saw anything from tribal systems that were trying to divert people from state court to offer services and do a diversionary court to victim services in Indian Country,” Hill said. “The other main takeaway was to talk about offering services to people is really the best way to try to address that cycle into the criminal justice system.”
Moving forward, all three authors hope the report continues — or for some start — the discussion on this issue.
In particular, Hill says the federal government takes a deeper look at funding tribes to enhance tribal court systems and funding public defense systems particularly.
“I think if you're looking at improving criminal justice outcomes, that really having an in-house public defender for tribal systems is a good first step to that,” Hill said.
“I hope that that's one of the main takeaways, one that we're unique,” Hansen said. “We have a unique history with the U.S. government and that we have a lot of resiliency that we can build from.”
Lead photo: Keith “Soy” Redthunder, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, has attended the Washington State Penitentiary powwow for years. He is the great-great grandson of Chief Joseph the younger and a Vietnam veteran. Photo by Jarrette Werk / Underscore News