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Military and Native American Criminal Justice - High Crime Rates

tribal officers indian country

In the late 1990s as violent crime was decreasing in the general U.S. population, it dramatically increased in Indian Country. Indian Country had almost twice the crime rate as the entire national population. The murder rate in particular was three times higher than for the U.S. population in general. The Fort Peck Reservation had a murder rate double that of the city of New Orleans, which had the highest murder rate among U.S. cities.

The swearing in of new Yavapai Indian tribal police officers, 1997. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Gang and domestic violence, aggravated assault, sexual assault, and child abuse were also rising sharply on tribal lands. The U.S. Department of Justice called the situation a public safety crisis. Among the many different racial and ethnic groups in the United States, Native Americans had one of the lowest life expectancy rates, due in large part to violence and crime contributing to these numbers.

Law enforcement in the remote rural areas where most tribal lands are found was spread very thin. In 1996 Indian Country had a total of 135 tribal law enforcement agencies and over 1,700 officers, along with 339 full-time BIA officers. Indian Country had 1.3 officers for every one thousand tribal members compared to the national average of 2.9 officers for every one thousand U.S. citizens. Many of these officers patrolled remote areas alone, a very dangerous situation.

In addition to law officers, there were only 78 full-time BIA and 90 tribal criminal investigators and just over 100 FBI agents available nationwide to Indian Country. Some seventy poorly funded and aging jails were located on fifty-five reservations, most holding only between ten and thirty inmates. Most were built in the 1960s and 1970s and had major problems. The jails held some 1,700 inmates in 1999, with forty-eight operated by tribes and the remainder by BIA or private operators. Only ten of these facilities were for juveniles; most housed juveniles along with adults. Programs for education and substance abuse hardly existed. In some cases, jail staffers had to buy necessities such as soap and toothpaste for inmates out of their own personal funds. Few of these staff members ever received professional training.

Given the dire conditions in Indian Country judicial systems overall, Congress increased funding for a newly created Tribal Courts Program to improve tribal judicial systems. In some cases money was available for intertribal courts, so more than one tribe could share a judicial system. Other funding went to help with tribal caseloads; revise and update tribal criminal codes and operating rules; hire more investigators, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges; create better record-keeping systems and buy fireproof storage cabinets; purchase more legal library materials; and make training and technical assistance programs available to tribes.

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