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The CIRCLE Evaluation: How Can Federal Funds Best Assist Tribal Nations?

Date Published
January 19, 2010

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. [1] 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.[2]

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.[3] The CIRCLE Project provided $46.4 million in grants between federal fiscal year 1999 and fiscal year 2001 [4] 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.

Read an NIJ Journal article on how the CIRCLE Project was started.

Read about the CIRCLE Project's history on page 29 of the full report (pdf, 81 pages).

Date Published: January 19, 2010