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Military and Native American Criminal Justice

Early Military Justice, Military Police, Military Justice Reform, Court-martials, The Court-martial Process

In the early twenty-first century multiple criminal justice systems existed in the United States. Two major kinds of systems—in addition to the civilian U.S. criminal justice system—were the military justice system and numerous American Indian or Native American justice systems. The military judicial system balances the rights of military service members with the need to maintain strict discipline. It has jurisdiction (legal authority in a geographic area) over all military members accused of criminal conduct no matter where they are stationed in the world.

Military justice is one part of military law; another is martial law, which is when the military exerts police power in politically unstable areas. The military justice system changed through time from being strictly run by military commanders who exerted considerable influence over proceedings of each trial to a more formal, standardized process that included protection of the constitutional rights of accused service men and women and provided them an opportunity to appeal decisions. Since the mid-twentieth century, fairness in the judicial process has been considered important in maintaining The military judicial system balances the rights of military service members with the need to maintain strict discipline. (AP/Wide World Photos) high morale in the military. Military courts are administered by the Department of Defense, not the Department of Justice.

Hundreds of Native American governments formally recognized by the U.S. government maintain sovereignty (a government free from outside control) over their lands and tribal members within the borders of the United States. In 2000 some 1.4 million Native Americans lived in the United States, or about 1.5 percent of the total population, many of whom claim tribal affiliations. Only the U.S. Congress can make decisions restricting tribal sovereignty.

American Indian reservations and other lands controlled by tribes are known as Indian Country in legal terms. Indian Country amounts to some 56 million acres within the United States, scattered in small areas around the country. As part of their sovereignty, tribes maintain their own criminal jurisdiction on these lands. Over two hundred tribal justice systems operate independently of each other and the U.S. criminal justice system. Given the poverty of many tribal communities in the late twentieth century, criminal justice in Indian Country was poorly coordinated.

For More Information


Bachman-Prehn, Ronet D. Death and Violence on the Reservation: Homicide, Violence, and Suicide in American Indian Populations. New York: Auburn House, 1992.

Belknap, Michal R. The Viet Nam War on Trial: The My Lai Massacre and the Court-Martial of Lieutenant Calley. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

Davidson, Michael J. A Guide to Military Criminal Law. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999.

Davis, Mary B. Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994.

French, Laurence, ed. Indians and Criminal Justice. Totowa, NJ: Allanheld, Osmun Publishers, 1982.

Lowry, Thomas P. Don't Shoot That Boy! Abraham Lincoln and Military Justice. Mason City, IA: Savas Publishing Co., 1999.

Wilkinson, Charles F. American Indians, Time, and the Law: Native Societies in a Modern Constitutional Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

Web Sites

National American Indian Court Judges Association. http://www.naicja.org/ (accessed on September 1, 2004).

National Institute of Military Justice. http://www.nimj.com/Home.asp (accessed on August 20, 2004).

U.S. Department of Tribal Justice, Office of Tribal Justice. http://www.usdoj.gov/otj (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law