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This lack of protection can lead to tragic events. Earlier this year, 54-year-old Thomas Madole, a pastor turned VPSO, was killed in the village of Manakotak in the southern part of Alaska.
According to Monegan, Madole tried to escape a man with a rifle by running a zigzag pattern to avoid being hit. He was unsuccessful. Weather that day allowed state troopers to fly into the village and find his body a few hours after his death. Madole, like other VPSOs, had gone through the relatively lax training to take the job: 40 hours of instruction.
About 75 communities in the state don’t have law enforcement at all.
“We’re conditioning folks not to rely on the services we have,” said Monegan. “That only adds a downward and deeper spiral to the people who live there, in regards to feeling disenfranchised, feeling uncared for, unvalued, and that causes more frustration, more alcohol, more substance abuse. It causes more violence.”
“Alaska is the epitome of a horribly failed criminal justice system,” said Fletcher. “Some of the other states are in a similar boat because they just don’t have the resources or the ability or political will to properly police Indian Country — and the same is true in some states with the federal government — but there are some very reasonable and even easy fixes to make that would go a long way.”
One of those fixes is money. At the moment, many tribes are able to fund their police forces only by applying for federal grants. If the federal government goes on sequester or shuts down, crime fighters in Indian Country have to figure out how to do the job with no cash.
The solution proposed by the ILOC: replace the grant system with a base-funding system.
“We don’t understand — philosophically or as a matter of public policy — why tribes have to apply for grants,” said Eid. “The bottom line is you need to have some base level of funding. It’s a lot like education, if you will.”
To the commission’s knowledge, there has never been a report that addresses the juvenile justice system in Indian Country.
“The post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rates for Native American juveniles in the United States are either matching or exceeding the PTSD rates for returning combat vets from Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Eid. “It’s unbelievable the amount of violence these young people are exposed to. They deserve better from our country.”
Since the Great Depression, it’s been the federal government’s policy to put Native American juveniles who have committed crimes in Indian Country into the federal justice system. It’s called automatic transfer, and those juveniles go straight into the U.S. Bureau of Prisons system.
“They’ve been incarcerated for misdemeanors,” said Eid. “We’re not talking about homicides or something. These are juvenile offenders.”
And in places like the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona, it’s beginning to catch up.
“A lot of the kids that have come back in that I talk to in groups say they just do it to come back into jail because jail is safer than at home,” said Caroline Antone, a Tohono O’odham tribal member and counselor. “In that sense, they’ve learned that if you just do something, steal something, you’ll end up going back to jail and you’ll get three meals and a cot.”
Tohono O’odham, one of the largest reservations in the nation, straddles the border between Mexico and Arizona. Tribal members live on both sides, but the community is divided by vehicle barriers put in place to stop smuggling and illegal immigration.
The result of the nation’s precarious position on an international border known for extremely high crime rates and dangerous conditions is that tribal members are exposed to violence and criminal activities. Couple that with a lack of jobs and desolate areas, and it’s hard to intervene when families have children who have already made contact with the system. For instance, because of the size of the reservation, counselors like Antone say it takes nearly a full day to work with a family. Since many don’t have phones, counselors often can drive all day only to find that the family isn’t home, and asking them to go in for appointments also poses challenges.
“A lot of these families are on food stamps or (general assistance), and if you choose to go to the grocery shop 50 miles away or go see a counselor that’s also 50 miles away, which one are you going to choose?” she said.
Roughly two-thirds of all juveniles in the federal detention system are Native Americans convicted of offenses in Indian Country. Once in the system, they are unable to access diversion programs, drug courts or other services routinely available throughout the rest of the United States.
Native juveniles serve, on average, sentences that are twice as long as those for the same or similar offenses that occur off-reservation, and, according to Eid, the system has essentially been on autopilot since the 1930s.
However, in some places like South Dakota, tribes have been able to work successfully to create tribally based solutions as workarounds to those federal statutes: tribal centers with education as the centerpiece — like a classroom behind bars — in hopes of preventing recidivism.
Juxtapose that with the existing federal system. Neither Congress nor the president has appropriated funds for secondary education in the last five years, and there is no chance for in-person or online instruction for juveniles in jail.
The ILOC report offers a spectrum of recommendations to fix problems in Indian Country, but the real question is what the legislative strategy will be to get it fixed.
Armed with hard facts and bipartisan recommendations, the report could solve Indian Country’s criminal jurisdiction problems, but only if Congress takes note.
“Which parts of this report do you pick to push to Congress first?” asked Fletcher. “Even in this dysfunctional Congress, they got the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) passed” — a major surprise to him in 2013, when Congress could agree on so little. VAWA allowed tribes to prosecute non-Indian offenders in tribal territory for certain domestic-violence crimes — a partial fix to the 1978 Supreme Court Oliphant v. Suquamish decision.
“There’s a trend toward a change. I think this kick-starts it a little bit,” said Fletcher. “I never would have imagined, even six or seven years ago, anything like the Tribal Law and Order Act would happen. Or that Congress would recognize the authority of tribes to prosecute non-Indians under the VAWA provisions. It blows my mind. It’s hard for me to believe that that happened even now.”
According to Fletcher, a careful lobbying strategy will be key to changing how tribes in the United States police their territory. But until lawmakers take the time to examine Indian Country’s crime problems and take significant, even radical action to curb them, the situation is expected to remain status quo.
“The federal government needs to step aside if the tribes are ready to govern, and they need to make that decision. They need to be able to assert their authority,” said Eid. “The whole glory of the United States system is that we can improve, and at moments in time we do. This could be one of those moments.”