Feds: Detention is last resort for tribal youth

Mary Hudetz
The Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE — The federal government recommends Native American courts dole out treatment, counseling and foster care to young criminals instead of fines and detention, a change in tribal guidelines that reflects a national shift in juvenile justice reform.

The Interior and Justice departments released their guidelines Monday, updating a three-decade-old juvenile justice code and suggesting detention should be a last resort for tribal youth, especially runaways and those who struggle with addiction or truancy.

Young Native Americans made up as much as 8 percent of jail inmates in Indian Country in 2014, and roughly half the small number of juveniles in federal custody between 1999 and 2008, the most recent available statistics show.

Nationwide, more states are looking for alternatives to detention for all youth. The revisions come six years after other guidelines for Indian Country called on federal courts and law enforcement to make incarceration a last resort in adult cases.


When Native American youth violate laws on reservations, tribal courts typically handle misdemeanor cases while federal courts deal with more serious felony charges.

“We’ve been looking at how our systems can better serve tribal youth,” said Larry Roberts, the Interior Department’s acting assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. “We really are trying to make sure our youth — for whatever reason if they come into contact with juvenile courts — are given the opportunity to both heal and be productive members of society.”

Several organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians, helped the government revise the guidelines over the past year to update the tribal juvenile code that the National Indian Justice Center initially helped develop. Calls to both groups requesting comment were not immediately returned Monday.

The Interior Department is required by law to provide a suggested framework for tribes for handling juvenile cases.

The research by those involved found tribal juvenile criminal codes were nearly indistinguishable from those for adults. The finding suggests a breakdown in a system that the Justice Department said in 2013 posed significant obstacles for tribal youth.

Tribes have final say over whether they will adopt the recommendations, and it is not clear how many will. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is planning several listening sessions with tribes over the coming months, Roberts said.

“Tribes can take pieces of the cold and mold it to needs of their cultures and their communities,” he said.

As many as 190 juveniles were jailed in Indian Country in 2014, according to the most recent data available from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

About 43 to 60 percent of juveniles in federal custody between 1999 and 2008 were Native American, according to a one-time report by the department’s Indian Law and Order Commission.

At the end of 2015, a total of 26 juveniles were being held in federal facilities, but the agency did not release a racial breakdown.