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As small, domestic dependent nations, many American Indian tribes face pressing crime and social problems but have limited resources with which to address them.
In 1998, several agencies in the U.S. Department of Justice partnered with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Oglala Sioux Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni to strengthen the tribes' criminal justice systems. The initiative, called the Comprehensive Indian Resources for Community and Law Enforcement (CIRCLE) Project, provided funding and federal support to help tribes consider how they might better address crime and public safety problems.
The goal of the CIRCLE Project was to reduce crime and improve safety in Native American communities by strengthening tribal criminal justice systems. It worked to change how individual components of the tribes' justice systems (police, prosecution, courts, detention, etc.) operated, related to one another and worked with nonjustice agencies. This comprehensive and transformative approach contrasts with targeted reform, which focuses on a single problem or a narrow set of problems.
Evaluating the CIRCLE Project
In late 2000, the National Institute of Justice funded a 48-month participatory evaluation of the CIRCLE Project. The evaluation was participatory in that federal and tribal partners collaborated with external evaluators to identify the evaluation's goals and design, collect data and assess whether the CIRCLE Project enhanced Native American nations' criminal justice systems. It also assessed the federal partners' efforts to provide assistance to the tribes. The evaluation had two parts:
- An 18-month process evaluation of CIRCLE's design and implementation. It considered how the federal government planned, funded and coordinated funding for the project. It also considered tribes' plans for and use of the money.
- A 30-month evaluation of each Native American nation's accomplishments and the overall project outcomes.
The 18-month evaluation report describes each of the four participating governments' goals and challenges and uncovers lessons learned (the four governments are the three tribal governments and the U.S. federal government). Read the full report.
The 30-month evaluation report describes the tribes' accomplishments, suggests ways to build on work begun during the CIRCLE Project, and emphasizes the use of smaller scale (as opposed to systemwide) change. Read the full report.
Creating the Comprehensive Indian Resources for Community and Law Enforcement (CIRCLE) Project
Historically, many Native American nations had effective, socially centered systems of governance.  With the growing dominance of western culture, Indigenous methods of governance and social control began to wane. By the late 20th century, these losses combined with other impacts of colonization could have contributed to significant crime and public safety problems in Indian Country. Reports of violent crime, victimization, domestic abuse, drug-related crime and gang activity dominated the conversation about reservation policing.
In response to these concerns, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) began to look for better ways to support law enforcement and public safety in Indian Country. It invested in several initiatives to strengthen Native American nations' law enforcement and justice systems and, through evaluation, began to learn from them. These federal initiatives included:
- The Tribal Strategies Against Violence Program.
- The Indian Country Justice Initiative.
- Tribal partnerships in the Weed and Seed programs.
With the U.S. Department of the Interior, DOJ convened the Executive Committee for Indian Country Law Enforcement Improvements to make recommendations to the President for improving safety in Indian Country. DOJ also recognized more American Indian tribes as eligible recipients of grant funds.
DOJ's efforts led to a three-year collaborative funding initiative known as the Comprehensive Indian Resources for Community and Law Enforcement (CIRCLE) Project. The CIRCLE Project provided $46.4 million in grants between federal fiscal year 1999 and fiscal year 2001  to the Pueblo of Zuni, Northern Cheyenne Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe. Tribes were encouraged to use grant funds to:
- Buy equipment and computer technology.
- Hire and train law enforcement personnel.
- Build corrections facilities.
- Enhance tribal courts.
- Create or improve juvenile justice programs.
- Improve victim services for women and children.
[note 1] Participatory evaluation is a process in which a group of stakeholders cooperatively evaluates a project, identifying what the evaluation will investigate, collecting data and providing the analysis. See, for example, Edward T. Jackson and Yusuf Kassam, Knowledge Shared: Participatory Evaluation in Development Cooperation, West Hartford, CT, and Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Kumarian Press, International Development Research Centre, 1998.
[note 2] A system of governance is "a set of rules — institutions — that societies put in place to organize themselves and get done what they need to get done, and the mechanisms they use to implement and enforce those rules" (Manley A. Begay, Stephen Cornell, Miriam Jorgensen and Joseph P. Kalt, "Development, Governance, Culture: What Are They, and What Do They Have to Do with Rebuilding Native Nations?" in Miriam Jorgensen (ed.), Rebuilding Native Nations: Strategies for Governance and Development, Tucson: University of Arizona, p. 41.)
[note 3] See, for example, International Association of Chiefs of Police, "Improving Safety in Indian Country: Recommendations from the IACP 2001 Summit," Alexandria, Va., October 2001.
[note 4] The CIRCLE Project — the Comprehensive Indian Resources for Community and Law Enforcement — was a partnership of several agencies in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Oglala Sioux Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni to strengthen the tribes' criminal justice systems. As part of the initiative, the National Institute of Justice and its DOJ partners funded an evaluation of the CIRCLE Project. Learn more about the CIRCLE Project and its evaluation.