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Rates of violent crime and sexual abuse on Indian reservations are several times the national average, and the problem is only getting worse. That was the message from tribal leaders yesterday at a Senate hearing on law enforcement in Indian country.
Making the situation even more dire is a critical shortage of jail beds. Forty thousand criminals were booked into jails last year on the Navajo Nation, the country's largest Indian reservation. Of those, not one person served their entire sentence.
Daniel Kraker of member station KNAU reports.
DANIEL KRAKER: The Navajo reservation is a vast expanse of sandstone mesas and canyons that sprawls across three states in the desert southwest. Nearly 200,000 people live here, but there now are only 59 jail beds. In Chinle, Arizona, a dusty res town of about 5,000, Sergeant Dean Hadley steps into the temporary police headquarters, literally a closet at the local community center.
Sergeant DEAN HADLEY (Chinle, Arizona): See how congested it is, being situated in a place like this and it takes a lot of repairing on this. We can't even go out and provide adequate services now. You know, we're in dire need here.
KRAKER: Last month, an electrical fire shut down the 50-year-old police station and jail here. The station moved into this makeshift closet, where there's only room for a couple desks. But there's nowhere to move the jail. Now, officers are citing and releasing people they would have previously arrested. Others are hauled down to the tribal capital of Window Rock over an hour away. But there are only 20 beds at the jail there, so Hadley says arrestees are typically released within eight hours.
Sgt. HADLEY: Out of these arrestees, you know, several then that, you know, were released from Window Rock, came back and committed another offense. They were re-arrested, went back to Window Rock and committed another crime. So that's what's happening right now, you know. It's really frustrating.
KRAKER: These are all misdemeanor cases. The federal government prosecutes felony cases on the reservation and detains those prisoners in state or county jails.
But the misdemeanors do include serious crimes like battery and some dangerous criminals.
Ms. HOPE MacDONALD-LONETREE (Chairperson, Navajo Nation Council's Public Safety Committee): There was a specific case where an individual was arrested once for battery and he had to be let go because there wasn't any space.
KRAKER: Hope MacDonald-LoneTree chairs the Navajo Nation Council's Public Safety Committee.
Ms. MacDONALD-LONETREE: He was arrested the second time just a few days later. He had to be released. There was no space. The third time he was picked up, it was because his wife was so severely beaten by him. She was flown to Phoenix to the trauma center there.
KRAKER: Local and state governments from California to Georgia are coping with jail bed shortages, but the problem is especially severe on the Navajo Nation and other Indian reservations, where many jails where built nearly a half century ago.
The Department of Justice has funded about 20 new jails on other reservations in the past decade, but there's no new funding proposed in next year's budget.
Chris Chaney directs the Office of Justice Services at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington.
Mr. CHRIS CHANEY (Deputy Director, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Office of Justice Services): We don't want to throw out any bandits out there. They're going to -tied things over in one or two reservations for three or four years. We want to develop a national strategy that will be a benefit to tribal corrections programs for 10, 20, even 40 years into the future.
KRAKER: While the tribe is lobbying the federal government for additional help, Hope MacDonald-LoneTree says the tribe recently increased its sales tax by one percent to help raise funds to pay for new jails themselves.
Ms. MACDONALD-LONETREE: We were talking about an impoverished nation. I mean, that's how much of a priority, the council and the people felt that the state of affairs was for detention that they were willing to tax themselves and use that money to build the facilities.
KRAKER: The tax hike will raise about $4 million a year. At that rate, it will take nearly a century to add the 750 jail beds the Navajo Nation is hoping for.
For NPR News, I'm Daniel Kraker.
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