Reports: Juvenile Justice System Fails Native Youth

By Laurel Morales
June 30, 2015

The juvenile justice system is failing Native American youth. That’s what a series of recent reports have shown. In June the Tribal Law and Policy Institute reported that state courts are twice as likely to incarcerate Native teens for minor crimes like truancy and alcohol use, than any other racial and ethnic group. All three recent reports call for reform.

Laurel Morales
Sgt. Barbara Johnson and Corrections Lt. Robbin Preston stand in the Western Navajo Nation Detention Center's empty courtyard.

Juvenile detention facilities around the country have a disproportionately high number of Native American youth according to the Indian Law & Order Commission report. On the reservation, it’s different. 

The day I visited the Navajo juvenile detention center in Tuba City, it was quiet, too quiet. It was empty. Corrections Lieutenant Robbin Preston said even though they have 36 beds at the facility, the average population is only one or two teens a day. 

"The Navajo Nation is reluctant to send youth to these facilities," Preston said. "It’s used more as a last resort so our population has been very, very low."

Laurel Morales
The Navajo Nation has two juvenile detention centers. This 36-bed facility in Tuba City averages only one or two kids a day.

Preston said the low jail population doesn’t reflect the number of troubled Navajo youth who need help. And that help is nearly impossible to find on this reservation, and most others.  The Navajo can’t afford the rehabilitative services, treatment programs and case workers that are provided for youth at detention facilities around the country.

"There really isn’t a system," said Addie Rolnick, a law professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "So it’s a misnomer to say there’s a juvenile justice system in Indian Country." 

She said a Native youth arrested faces a maze of legal jurisdictions -- tribal, federal and state.

"There are two or three different governments in charge of dealing with kids," Rolnick said. "They may or may not talk to each other. Where the kids end up being sent may not be a good place for them." 

Laurel Morales
On this day the Western Navajo Nation Juvenile Detention Center's courtyard is empty. The tribe can't afford rehabilitative services or treatment for its youth.

The majority of Native American youth live-in communities with alarmingly high rates of alcoholism, domestic violence and suicide.

According to another recent report  from the Indian Law and Order Commission, these youth suffer from post traumatic stress at a rate higher than military personnel who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Rolnick said incarceration should be the last option for kids exposed to so much violence.

"If you have a population of kids who have suffered trauma and violence and abuse, and that’s true for a lot of kids in the justice system especially a lot of girls, it’s really true for native youth, the last thing you want to do is lock them up put them in places where they’re watched by cameras and guards all the time," Rolnick said.

The U.S. Attorney General’s Advisory Committee On American Indian/Alaska Native Children Exposed To Violence said prevention and treatment programs have proven to be more effective than incarceration. But most tribes rely on federal funding sources. And Rolnick said it’s easier to fund a jail, a building, something tangible than it is to fund a program. 

The Navajo Nation, the country’s largest tribe, does provide limited funds to run one prevention program called Dine Youth, an after-school program that keeps kids out of trouble.

Theresa Hatathlie has worked with Dine Youth for more than a decade.

"I listen to a lot of the kids' stories and a lot of times they just need somebody to hear them and to acknowledge them," Hatathlie said.

Dine Youth puts a strong emphasis on learning Navajo culture, language and philosophy. 

All three reports concluded that’s exactly what Native youth are missing -- a connection to their heritage. The researchers pointed to the painful legacy troubled youth have inherited. For centuries the federal government forced Native Americans off their land and youth into boarding schools to erase their Native identity. That trauma has compounded over generations. 

Unlike many of her peers, Hatathlie spoke only Navajo at home. And she said that foundation has given her a strong sense of self.

"I don’t doubt where I came from," Hatathlie said. "I don’t doubt what my parents have taught me. So as far as self esteem and a sense of being lost, that doesn’t exist in me."

Law professor Addie Rolnick said lawmakers need to look beyond jails and courts. It’s investing in treatment and prevention programs like Dine Youth that are going to make a difference with kids.