Complexities of Criminal Jurisdiction and Justice Systems Failing Indian Country

“You get three agencies in a room, and you have four opinions.” That’s according to Professor Monte Mills, co-director of the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic at the University of Montana School of Law, in this reporting by the Great Falls Tribune. Here, he’s talking about how the complexities of criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country hamper the justice system.

Earlier this year, in the same article, the Great Falls Tribune reported on the death of Eljaye Young Running Crane, a young Blackfeet man, who had been hit and killed by a suspected drunk driver, while walking alongside the road. Reporters and members of the tribal community sought answers from investigators and the justice system. Some questions were redirected to other agencies involved in the investigation, be they tribal, state, or federal. Some questions were left unanswered altogether.

All the while, among Indian Country, the process was fueling a lack of confidence in the criminal justice system, a system that is criticized for being dysfunctional and unresponsive to the needs of American Indian communities.

American Indians represent roughly 7 percent of Montana’s overall population; yet, they accounted for 19 percent of all Montana Department of Justice arrests in 2015. Those arrests translate into disproportionately higher incarceration rates. In 2016, American Indians comprised 17 percent of the overall state corrections population, making up 20 percent of the state’s prison population. American Indian men represented 20 percent and American Indian women represented 34 percent of all inmates.

Over the past few years, Montana is starting to tackle criminal justice reform. That means now is also an ideal time to consider making important changes to help reduce American Indian arrest and incarceration rates.

Jurisdiction, Justice Systems, and American Indians in Montana, MBPC’s newest report examining the disproportionately high rates of arrest and incarceration experienced by American Indians in Montana, explains some of the complexities of criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country and how American Indians can become involved in one or more overlapping justice systems. This report also provides an overview of the structure of and interaction among state, federal, and tribal justice systems. To learn more about probation and parole, mandatory education, fines, counseling, and substance abuse treatment, read our report, Criminal Justice Reinvestment in Montana:  Improving Outcomes for American Indians.

It goes without saying that tribal nations across America successfully maintained public law and order in their communities for thousands of years. However, the prevailing traditional tribal methods of administering justice have changed radically over the past two hundred years. This brings us to today’s criminal justice system, where, for example, American Indians can be tried in both tribal and federal courts for the same offense without it being considered double jeopardy.

In Indian Country in Montana, there are many different justice systems and overlapping jurisdictions. Because of the complexity this creates, policymakers and justice system employees should have a basic understanding of how American Indians can become involved in one or more of these systems.

Understanding this and the ways these justice systems interact and overlap can give insight into possible entry points for American Indians and help policymakers identify places or ways in which state and federal/tribal collaborations might be effective in decreasing the overrepresentation of American Indians in the state criminal justice system.

Indian Country in Montana needs a criminal justice system that is functional and responsive to the needs of American Indian communities.

You can find both reports here.

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