Justice for Tribal Youth

November 17, 2017

It's time to reauthorize the nationa's main federal juvenile justice law, the JJDPA, to support tribal programs and ultimately produce better outcomes for Native youth.

November 1 marked the beginning of Native American Heritage Month, which recognizes the 567 American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments and their histories, cultures, and traditions. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 6.6 million people identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, and a little over 40 percent of that population is under the age of 25.

Not only is November a time to honor American Indian and Alaska Native communities, it is also a time to take a closer look at the federal laws and policies that impact these communities, particularly Native youth, who continue to be disproportionately represented in state juvenile justice systems.

According to a recent report by the Sentencing Project, Native youth are nearly three times more likely than their white peers to be committed to the juvenile justice system. In some states, the disparities are even more alarming.  The Sentencing Project found that in Minnesota, for example, Native youth are more than ten times more likely to be committed than white youth.

Native youth are nearly three times more likely than their white peers to be committed to the juvenile justice system. They are more likely to receive harsher treatment and longer sentences than other young people.

In 2013, the Indian Law and Order Commission issued a report on juvenile justice that discussed the challenges facing Native youth.  A second report was issued by the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence in 2014. Both reports noted that tribal communities often lack access to funding and other preventative resources, which ultimately contributes to Native youth entering the juvenile justice system. Once they are there, they are likely to receive harsher treatment and longer sentences than other groups.

The reports also concluded that in order to address the over-incarceration of Native juvenile offenders, tribal, federal, state, and local governments should implement programs and services that respect the primary role of tribal governments and provide for culturally-appropriate rehabilitation and services.

Reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) and the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) is one way to begin implementing the recommendations in these reports. Although neither of the pending reauthorization bills (S. 860/H.R. 1809 and S. 1870) would address all of the Commission’s recommendations, reauthorizing the JJDPA—which is more than a decade overdue—and TLOA, which was first passed in 2010, will help to ensure continued access to funding for compliance and programming so that tribes will have federal dollars to implement related programs and services vital to the successful rehabilitation of Native youth who come in contact with the law. The JJDPA and TLOA include funding to create programs that provide alternatives to detention and vital prevention services.

Despite limitations on funding and resources, Indian Country is aggressively pursuing innovative practices that focus on culturally-appropriate prevention services, juvenile courts, and rehabilitation programs. Increased federal support for these tribal government initiatives through the JJDPA and TLOA will ultimately produce better outcomes for Native youth.

Make a call for youth justice and the JJDPA today: bit.ly/act4jjdpa.


Jacob Schellinger is Staff Attorney & Legislative Counsel with the National Congress of American Indians. Rachel Marshall is Federal Policy Counsel with the Campaign for Youth Justice.

This post is part of the Act4JJ #JJDPAmatters Blog project, powered by SparkAction.



Bitly Shortener

Share this SparkAction Link: click here to shorten