Juvenile Justice System Failing Native Americans, Studies Show One report shows that state courts are twice as likely to incarcerate Native teens for minor crimes like truancy and alcohol use. Another, that alternatives like treatment programs are more effective.


Juvenile Justice System Failing Native Americans, Studies Show

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The juvenile justice system is failing Native American youth. That's what several recent studies have shown. The Tribal Law and Policy Institute says state courts are twice as likely to incarcerate Native American teens for minor crimes such as truancy and alcohol use. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports from Flagstaff.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Mardisia wears shoes that make her almost a half-foot taller than she really is. We're not using her name because she's a juvenile. The 17-year-old is standing a little taller now that she's out of the orange jumpsuit. She's been in and out of juvenile detention for assault, shoplifting and a variety of other charges over the last four years.

MARDISIA: I used to be known as Party Mardy (ph). Hey, you know, you want to go drink? You want to go party? Go hit up Marty. I used to be that cool kid, thinking that I was cool, you know?

MORALES: Then last April, she drove seven friends to Lake Powell.

MARDISIA: I took a couple of sips from alcohol, thinking it was cool to, like, skip school and stay at the lake and tell our parents lies. We were heading back, and we got into this accident because I was speeding.

MORALES: They rolled off the road. All seven kids were OK. In fact, they ran from the car. Mardisia tested positive for alcohol and meth, and she was driving without a license. Mardisia is Navajo, like many kids who wind up in Coconino County Juvenile Detention, just outside the reservation.

Juvenile detention facilities around the country have a disproportionately high number of Native American youth, according to the Indian Law and Order Commission report. On a reservation, it's different. The day I visit the Navajo Nation juvenile detention center in Tuba City, it's quiet - too quiet. Sergeant Barbara Johnson and Corrections Lieutenant Robbin Preston show me around.

BARBARA JOHNSON: These are all of our holding cells here.

Right now, we don't have anybody in custody.


ROBBIN PRESTON: The Navajo nation is really reluctant on sentencing youth to these facilities. It sees more as a last resort, so our population has been very, very low.

MORALES: Preston says that doesn't reflect the number of troubled Navajo youth, but the Navajo and many other tribes have no rehabilitative services to offer them. So a native youth arrested on the reservation faces a maze of legal jurisdictions.

ADDY ROLNICK: There is no one juvenile justice system.

MORALES: Addy Rolnick is a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

ROLNICK: There are, rather, at least three different third jurisdictions at any given time with power over native youth. The federal government might be involved, the state government might be involved, and then the tribal government.

MORALES: And, Rolnick says, where they wind up may do more harm than good. According to the Indian Law and Order Commission report, these youth suffer from post-traumatic stress at a rate higher than military personnel who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. So, Rolnick says, incarceration should be the last option for kids exposed to so much violence.

ROLNICK: Because if you have a kid who's been damaged, when they come in to a system, just about the worst thing you can do is to lock them up, put them under surveillance all day and have guards watching them.

MORALES: The U.S. Attorney General's advisory committee on Native children says prevention, treatment programs and case workers have proven to be more effective than incarceration. Mardisia, who rolled that car full of friends, needed a whole team of case workers - a pastor, a counselor and a probation officer.

MARDISIA: I used to think, like, oh, whatever, I'm just a teenager. Nothing's going to be serious from here on.

MORALES: She discovered that leaving the scene of an accident was pretty serious. After spending another couple months in detention, she's found religion. A few weeks ago, she went with a church group to serve food to the homeless.

MARDISIA: I looked at them and asked myself, do I really want to look like this? Do I want to be in a place like this in the future? If I keep up what I'm doing now, I will be here.

MORALES: Mardisia turns 18 at the end of the summer. She knows she will no longer be tried as a juvenile if she gets into trouble again, so she's working on her GED and even has her sights set on college. For NPR News, I'm Laura Morales in Flagstaff.

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