1. Update
  2. Native Americans, Criminal Justice

Justice for Native Youth


The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) is being reauthorized in Congress this spring. How will it work for Native youth?

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) is being reauthorized in Congress this spring. One bill, H.R. 1809, has been approved by the House Education and Workforce Committee and a companion bill, S. 860, was “hot-lined” (put on a fast track) before Easter recess in the Senate.

Native youth are twice as likely as youth in other ethnic or racial groups to be jailed for minor crimes such as truancy and using alcohol. They are generally far more likely to be swept up in the juvenile justice system than their non-Native counterparts.

Deeper than these encounters with “the law” are Native youth’s encounters with death. A Senate hearing in July 2015 explored the growing and frightening fact of suicide among Native youth. The testimony of John Yellowbird Steele, President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, pointed to the living context for these youth – high school drop-out rate, massive unemployment, extremely low per capita income. For some Native youth, the context they live in is one of abandonment and no hope.

This context emphasizes the importance of tribal access to the preventive and rehabilitative programs included in the JJDPA. The committee followed up in August 2015 by exploring alternative – non-incarceration – measures to deal with youth who are tapped by the justice systems. The studies and experiences reported in that hearing showed markedly better outcomes for tribal youth when they are able to participate in culturally relevant, community-based programs.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is concerned that several provisions relating to Native youth are not included in the bill that is steaming toward a final vote. The NCAI lifts up several priorities for juvenile justice. Here are a few:

  • Let the tribes know when Native youth come into contact with, or leave, state or local justice systems, and allow access for tribes to school attendance and disciplinary records for their members. State courts are currently required to notify tribes of proceedings involving tribal juveniles who have committed status offenses, but not delinquency proceedings.

  • Given the over-representation of Native youth in federal and state prisons and jails, adequate funding of preventive services is critical. One path for funding is a formula-based pass-through from states. In many places, the formula results in miniscule funds to meet major needs – such as the New Mexico pass-through of less than $7,000 to be shared by 16 tribes.

  • Incorporate culturally relevant, trauma-informed assessments and care as a standard in juvenile justice systems. Require states to engage in meaningful consultation with tribes on shaping juvenile justice programs to be successful with Native youth.

  • For Native youth being held in federal custody, allow federal authorities (the Attorney General’s offices) to defer to tribal jurisdiction as they are currently authorized to do with respect to states and territories.

Congress has not yet taken final action on these bills; there is time to ask your representatives and senators to raise up the importance of appropriate services for Native youth.