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Creating a Sustainable and Effective Tribal Criminal Justice System

Date Published
January 19, 2010

Based on their experience evaluating a comprehensive initiative to improve tribal criminal justice systems, the CIRCLE Project [1] researchers offered suggestions for making sustainable justice system improvements. These considerations should be taken into account from the planning stage onward, not merely when a funding cycle is about to end.

  • Focus on long-term system strengthening. Tribes must resist the urge to attempt short-term fixes for ongoing criminal justice problems. Rather than solely using short-term funds to hire more police or add more jail space, nations must also spend on future solutions. Funding responses to immediate crises must be balanced with realistic investment in long-term strategies for change.
  • Pursue nation building. Nation building is the process of creating effective self-government. Nation building helps tribes achieve their social and economic goals. If criminal justice system reform is linked to nation building, community leaders are more likely to use their resources to support it.
  • Create culturally legitimate processes. Sustainable criminal justice programs and systems distribute power and authority in a way that makes sense to community members. Their structure, protocols and procedures can be designed to reinforce the cultural norms, values and priorities of the tribe.
  • Build partnerships with social service and community organizations. These organizations can help tribal justice agencies mitigate and resolve conflicts, support victims and reintegrate offenders. Tribal justice agencies may wish to reach out to grassroots organizations, community service centers, religious groups, Boys & Girls Clubs and other social service providers that offer complementary services and can aid in system change.
  • Create a timeframe for investing in change. Partner governments and organizations should create a clear timeline for reforming a tribe's criminal justice system, including details about:
    • What stakeholders will be involved in the process. Which institutions or individuals will participate in system reform? How will they be involved?
    • How changes will be funded. Will funds come from federal, tribal or other sources?
    • How organizations will evolve. Should a Native American nation change the hierarchy of a police department? How can organizations incorporate local culture into their programs and processes? How can police be more accountable to the community?
    • What technologies or protocols must be developed. Does the tribe need a better management information system? Does the court need to develop a protocol for case processing? How will police interact with prosecutors?
  • Emphasize the difference between system change and program development. Justice system change takes hard work. Reformers must generate a political mandate for change, address tough questions and challenge established practices. The process may involve fundamental change akin to constitutional reform. Investing in programs and personnel may be easier — but is non the same as system change. Nonetheless, if new programs and personnel are strategically implemented, they can build support for wider reform.
  • Eliminate bias and corruption. Criminal justice systems that suffer from political bias and corruption tend to lack popular support. When tribal justice system reform helps ensure that criminal justice agencies are not vulnerable to political interference and that staff remain impartial when enforcing laws, citizens will support and help sustain the change.
  • Invest in federal change. The federal government should investigate new ways to help tribal nations fight crime. Miriam Jorgensen and Stewart Wakeling, lead CIRCLE Project evaluators, write, "…the shift from program to system thinking, from Band-Aids to true reform, and from short-term solutions to long-term sustainability implies a need for new forms of federal investment in strengthening the capacity of Indian Country institutions to address crime." In particular, they suggest that federal initiatives should:
    • Support realistic, tribe-specific change agendas that are grounded in analysis of local data.
    • Promote nation building.
    • Offer tribes access to funding that might be used for a variety of purposes (which DOJ might provide through flexible and collaborative cross-agency arrangements).

For more information, read the full report.

[note 1] The CIRCLE Project — the Comprehensive Indian Resources for Community and Law Enforcement Project — 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.

Funds came from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Corrections Program Office, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office for Victims of Crime, Office on Violence Against Women, and Office of the Comptroller. Some of this money would have been invested in Indian Country anyway; however, the native nations participating in CIRCLE received between 40 percent and 400 percent more from participating DOJ agencies than comparable tribes. Learn more about the CIRCLE Project and its evaluation.

National Institute of Justice, "Creating a Sustainable and Effective Tribal Criminal Justice System," January 19, 2010, nij.ojp.gov:
Date Created: January 19, 2010