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Tribal Crime and Justice: Research Challenges

Date Published
August 4, 2009

Historically, research conducted within tribal communities or about this population has been inappropriate or misleading. In some cases, the results were used against members of the tribal community. In other cases, results were discussed out of context. Research failures have made American Indian and Alaska Native people reluctant to participate in research.

Researchers who wish to conduct informative and appropriate studies of American Indian and Alaska Native communities face a number of challenges:

  • Lack of available data. (See Collecting and Analyzing Tribal Data.)
  • Difficulty in obtaining access to information.
  • Complex and multiple overlapping jurisdictional boundaries.
  • Jurisdiction gaps.
  • Diverse tribal justice systems.
  • Cultural, social and economic variability within American Indian and Alaska Native populations.
  • Difficulty in conducting adequate sampling.
  • Use of culturally appropriate methods.

Multiple and overlapping governing systems present special challenges. Tribal communities are governed by multiple justice systems. For example, on reservations, federal and tribal laws apply to members of a tribe unless federal law provides otherwise, but non-American Indian and Alaska Native people who commit crimes on tribal lands cannot be prosecuted by tribal courts. [1]

In addition, federal laws state that the U.S. Department of Justice has primary jurisdiction over most felonies that occur on Indian lands. Consequently, the FBI and the United States Attorneys' Offices are the primary federal law enforcement agencies responsible for investigating and prosecuting felony crimes that occur in Indian Country.

Despite federal jurisdiction, most tribes maintain tribal court systems and facilities to detain tribal members convicted of misdemeanor offenses within reservation boundaries.

Outside reservations, federal, state and local laws apply to members and nonmembers of tribes.

NIJ’s research on tribal crime and justice is collaborative and participatory. NIJ engages in research and evaluation to understand criminal and juvenile justice problems in American Indian and Alaska Native communities and to recognize the many challenges that tribal justice agencies face. NIJ makes every effort to involve American Indian and Alaska Native people in the design, implementation, collection, analysis of data and interpretation of findings of the research. This collaborative and participatory process ensures that the research and evaluation conducted is sensitive to tribal culture and worldviews as well as the diversity of tribes, cultures and languages. It also ensures that research methods respect tribal sovereignty, customs and traditions.

Creating a national research agenda. NIJ is consulting with tribal nations to develop a national research agenda to address major crime and justice issues identified by tribes.

For more information, see the U.S. Department of Justice's Tribal Justice and Safety in Indian Country Web page.

Date Published: August 4, 2009