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Are US Federal Courts Harder on Native American Offenders?

Complex jurisdictional rules governing crimes on reservations mean that Native Americans may face twice the jail time given to non-Natives for similar offenses.
Complex jurisdictional rules governing crimes on reservations mean that Native Americans may face twice the jail time given to non-Natives for similar offenses.
Are US Federal Courts Harder on Native American Offenders?
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On a hot day in 2016, Tracey Beaver and three friends drove to the town of Grants, New Mexico to buy alcoholic drinks.

On the return trip, Beaver lost control of his truck and hit a wall on the side of the road. Two of his passengers were thrown onto the road and killed. The two were sisters. Their mother was one of the emergency medical workers who went to help those injured in the accident.

Police tested Beaver’s blood alcohol level and found it was two times the legal limit. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the deaths.

Beaver is a member of the Ramah Navajo tribe. Many Native Americans live on Indian reservations, which are under the control of a federal agency in the United States, not a state government.

Most crimes on Indian reservations go to state or tribal court. But because the federal government has control over serious crimes in Indian Country, Beaver’s case went to a federal court.

Beaver had a long history of alcohol abuse and driving violations before the accident. He is now serving a 10-year prison sentence after he admitted guilt in court to the involuntary manslaughter charges.

Brian Pori is the New Mexico federal public defender who represented Beaver during his trial. He says that if the case had been in a state court, Beaver would likely have been charged with a fourth-degree felony and given a sentence of only three years in prison.

“The facts of the case are just chilling and heartbreaking,” said Pori. “Under the United States' sentencing guidelines, he was facing a sentence of about five years. The judge doubled that sentence because of the facts of the case. And this is something that happens over and over throughout the U.S.”

An unfair system

Many Native Americans and Alaska Natives say they often are targeted by police.

Targeting is especially easy in South Dakota, said Shane Boudreaux, a Lakota tribe member from the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Boudreaux said that in South Dakota, each county has its own vehicle license plate prefix number.

For example, the number “67” is used for vehicles from Todd County, while “65” is for Oglala Lakota County. Both areas lie completely inside reservations, which often have high rates of poverty. In addition, some drivers may not have up-to-date driver’s licenses, vehicle registrations or auto insurance policies.

Boudreaux said that most tribal members do not have enough money to pay for a lawyer. If they are arrested and charged, they depend on public defender systems, which are often underfinanced and overworked.

There are also differences in the ways juries are chosen in tribal, state and federal courts. So Native Americans charged in federal court are more likely to face a jury of non-Natives, whose decisions could be driven by racial prejudice.

Federal courthouse in Santa Fe, N.M.
Federal courthouse in Santa Fe, N.M.

Growing numbers in prison

Jeffrey Ian Ross is an expert on Native Americans in the criminal justice system. He told VOA that differences in tribal, state, and federal courts do not receive a lot of attention in criminology.

“Very few people have studied this sort of thing,” he said.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reported on the numbers of Native Americans and Alaska Natives in local jails from 1999 to 2014. In the middle of 2014, about 10,400 such men and women were in prison. This was almost two times as many people as those in jail 15 years earlier. The report found that the numbers increased every year at a rate of about 4.3 percent.

“The American Indian population in the jail has doubled, but the actual residential population hasn’t grown in the same way,” said Todd Minton, who wrote the report. “What that means is that American Indians are more likely to be incarcerated.”

Native American youths are 30 percent more likely than white youths to be sent to juvenile courts than have charges dropped. That information comes from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. It also said they are 10 percent more likely to be held in jail than released while awaiting a trial.

The Campaign for Youth Justice notes that Native youths make up only one percent of all young people in the United States. However, 70 percent of young people given to the Federal Bureau of Prisons are Native American.

Because of these concerns, the U.S. Sentencing Commission asked a federal group in 2015 to examine claims that Native Americans are more likely to face more severe prison sentences than other people.

In its final report of May 2016, the Tribal Issues Advisory Group found there is not enough information to prove or disprove the claims. The group urged the commission to set up a process to collect better data. It also asked the commission to support Congress in motivating states to collect better data specific to Native Americans.

This was not the first time the commission examined the problem, said New Mexico lawyer Brian Pori. “They’ve done this for the past 20 years and have found over and over again, ‘Yes, the sentences appear to be more severe, but we don’t know how much because we don’t have good enough comparison data,’” he said.

“Well, to me, that’s no real response at all,” he added.

I’m Phil Dierking.

Cecily Hilleary reported this story for Phil Dierking adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

involuntary manslaughter - n. the crime of killing another human being unlawfully but unintentionally.

reservation - n. an area of land in the U.S. that is kept separate as a place for Native Americans to live

chilling - adj. very disturbing or frightening

felony - n. a serious crime

license - n. an official document, card, etc., that gives you permission to do, use, or have something

prejudice - n. an unfair feeling of dislike for a person or group because of race, sex, religion, etc.

incarcerate - v. to put someone in prison

juvenile - adj. relating to or meant for young people

data - n. facts or information used usually to calculate, analyze, or plan something

response - n. something that is said or written as a reply to something