Native America Calling: The over-incarceration of Native Americans
January 25, 2023
The research on the over-representation of Native Americans behind bars is long and vast.
But a new report shows numbers that exceed what we've seen in the past: Native people are incarcerated at a rate 38 times the national average, and are held in proportions higher than any other ethnic group in at least 19 states.
Over-Incarceration of Native Americans: Roots, Inequities, and Solutions
A new national report from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation highlights that Native people are disproportionately incarcerated in the United States.
The report, commissioned as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), shows that in states with higher Native populations, incarceration rates are up to seven times that of White people, and that Native people are sentenced more harshly than White, African American, and Hispanic individuals. Moreover, American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) were incarcerated at a rate 38 percent higher than the national average and were overrepresented in the prison population in 19 states compared to any other race and ethnicity.
The full report can be read here. A variety of media covered the report's launch including Montana Public Radio,Wisconsin Gannett, Native News Online, the Lakota Times and Cheyenne Arapaho Tribal Tribune.
"Like many modern challenges in Indian Country, over-incarceration of Indigenous people is intimately tied to colonial violence and upheld by policies throughout the years," said Dr. Ciara Hansen, currently a clinical psychologist in the Iina' Counseling Services department at Northern Navajo Medical Center and author of the report. "Paternalistic solutions applied to Native communities often miss the important step of seeking to understand the issue from the community's perspective. This report offers a starting point for discussion and knowledge sharing."
"The report not only highlights the painful and unacceptable treatment of Native people in the criminal justice system, but also underscores the overreliance on incarceration to solve community issues," said Bria Gillum, a senior program officer at MacArthur. "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."
The national report is authored by Dr. Desiree L. Fox (Bitterroot Salish), Dr. Ciara D. Hansen, (Shawnee/Cherokee), and Ann Miller, an attorney with the Tribal Defenders Office of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Reservation in Montana.
Additional key findings in the report include:
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.
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.
Native youth are more likely to face conviction in adult court, especially for drug-related crimes.
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.
The report demonstrates the need for ongoing research to decrease the rates of arrests and incarcerations of Native people. More research is particularly needed to better understand the experiences of Native people and the systemic change necessary to meaningfully improve outcomes.
The recommendations put forth by the authors of the report include:
Empower tribal justice systems which are better positioned to intervene because they offer services that are culturally relevant, restorative, and fair.
Change the trajectory before, or even after, Native people are pulled into state and federal systems by addressing the underlying issues that bring people into the criminal justice system and the collateral consequences that pull them back in.
Provide funding to appoint counsel to the indigent, tribally based public defender offices to support positive change that are most congruent with traditional, restorative practices.
Encourage tribal public defenders to work with their clients in the context of their community-their families, their elders, their values, and their definitions of success.
The report is based on data from several surveys and sources, including the Indian Law and Order Commission, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and others. The full list of sources can be found at the end of the report.
Matt Davis is a Communications Consultant at the Safety & Justice Challenge.