Report: Antiquated Laws Threaten Public Safety in Indian Country

A law dating back to 1938 called the automatic transfer provision sweeps American Indian and Alaska Native youth into the federal criminal justice system when they commit anything beyond misdemeanor crimes.

Although American Indians comprise little more than 1 percent of the nation’s population, one 10-year study found that at any given time 43-to-60 percent of juveniles held in federal custody were American Indian, a wildly disproportionate

Once there, they serve sentences far longer than other juveniles sentenced locally for similar offenses.

These are among the findings of the final report from the national Indian Law & Order Commission, chaired by former United States Attorney Troy Eid of Denver. The “Roadmap for Making Native America Safer” turns particularly urgent in its call to reform juvenile justice in Indian country.

Constantly exposed to poverty, addictions and all manners of violence from domestic assault to suicide to murder, Native youth experience post-traumatic distress disorder at a rate of 22 percent, equivalent to that among American troops returning from war, the report shows. Juveniles caught up in the federal system effectively “go missing” from their tribes.

“Juvenile justice for Native kids has not changed since the 1930s,” Eid said in an interview with I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS. “They’re automatically transferred into federal jurisdiction. It’s just extraordinary no one has reassessed that. There isn’t juvenile justice within the Bureau of Prisons. It doesn’t exist there. There’s no diversion, no drug courts, no education. There are no books, no programs to reintegrate into society, nothing. It’s really very sad.

“And it doesn’t square with our Constitution,” Eid said.

The new report is blunt in its assessment of criminal justice in Indian country, and of the risks the current system poses for public safety.

At the heart of its 40 recommendations for change is the premise that local crimes should be investigated and prosecuted by local authorities, in this case by tribal police and courts. As it is now, an 1885 law classifies all serious crimes on tribal lands as federal crimes.

The report calls for changing federal laws and investing in criminal justice infrastructure in Indian country in order to make that happen.

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