NF Header Image
by Elizabeth Spinney

Racial Justice American Indian and Alaska Native youth are overrepresented in the U.S. juvenile justice system at numerous stages, including court referrals, secure detention, petition, adjudication, secure placement, and transfer to adult court. They are also underrepresented among youth who are diverted from juvenile court and placed on probation—a more lenient disposition.1

While national data gives us a general picture of disproportionate minority contact, disparities vary greatly by jurisdiction. For example, a racial disparities study in Montana found although there were similar levels of involvement in court referral and petition filing among white and Native American youth, disproportionality was evident after the adjudication stage. American Indian juveniles were more likely than white juveniles to be formally adjudicated, and they were more likely to be sent to secure confinement after adjudication (71.9 percent compared with 59.1 percent and 30.5 percent compared with 27.5 percent, respectively).2 Additionally, an Oklahoma study found higher recidivism rates among Native American youth compared with white youth.3

Researchers have identified various mechanisms that contribute to racial disparities in the juvenile justice system: differential behavior and involvement in delinquency; differential processing, inappropriate decision making, and system bias; and legislation, policies, and legal factors. Indirect effects—a broad term reflecting the fact that various risk factors associated with juvenile justice system involvement are also linked with race and ethnicity—contribute to disparities as well.4 For example, Native youth are more likely than the general youth population to live in poverty; be exposed to violence, loss, and intergenerational trauma; suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder; and abuse alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.5

Another contributing mechanism is the differential opportunity for prevention and treatment,4 which can affect Native youth in at least three ways. First, programs can be geographically difficult to access. Second, the physical tone of a facility may be discouraging and unwelcoming to different cultures, with policies and staff who are not culturally competent. This can discourage Native youth participation, retention, and success. Third, current juvenile justice systems often push evidence-based practices that have not proven effective with Native American youth, instead of supporting local, cultural practices.

Exacerbating these challenges, Native American youth are regularly prosecuted in three distinct systems: state, tribal, and federal.7 In the 2014 Defending Childhood report, the Attorney General's Advisory Committee on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence stated this patchwork of jurisdictions fails Native children by creating additional harm without reducing delinquency.8

Trina Wolf Chief, director of the Rocky Boy's Children Exposed to Violence Project and other programs managed by the Chippewa Cree Tribal Human Services Division, is particularly concerned about differences in expectations and accountability. Wolf Chief shared a story of a teenager who ran into trouble on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation. When the boy left the reservation one day to go joyriding with some friends, he was arrested and charged with two felonies. Eventually he was sentenced and lost the opportunity to graduate from high school.

"I felt our tribal courts failed him because there were no consequences for him on the reservation," Wolf Chief said. "Often the consequences are not strict enough or [carried out]. We need a stronger juvenile court and probation officers that are more diligent. I've seen it happen a lot [where] kids leave the reservation and get in trouble for fighting or [get] a DUI right off the reservation. We need to get our juvenile justice codes up to date."

Many would argue that tribal courts are just one part of a justice system in dire need of change. For example, sentences given to juveniles by nontribal courts often have a lasting negative impact and fail to meet the unique needs of special populations and youths who have been exposed to violence or trauma.9

Positive change for juvenile codes in Indian Country could be just around the corner. For the first time in more than 25 years, the federal government has planned to update its 1988 Model Indian Juvenile Code.10 A discussion draft of the proposed updates is in circulation.

Furthermore, the 2014 Attorney General's report recommends juvenile justice system reforms that serve Native American youth. First and foremost, these systems should be tribally operated or strongly influenced by tribes within local regions. The committee also provides specific recommendations, such as trauma-informed services and culturally based traditional healing, and using detention as a last resort.

Efforts to improve services for Native youth are moving forward in jurisdictions throughout the United States.10 A July 2015 NPR story highlighted the Navajo Nation's success in reducing the number of youths in secure detention. Because rehabilitation services are not offered in secure detention, local decision makers use it only as a last option, as recommended by the aforementioned Attorney General's report.11 Additionally, programs run by several tribes, including Rosebud Sioux and Chippewa Cree, have been cited as having positive impacts.11,12

The Defending Childhood initiative has sought to allow tribes and families a greater part in juvenile justice reform, driving prevention, treatment, and healing. They have worked to establish trauma-informed and culturally rooted services and connect federal, tribal, and state systems to ensure youths' needs are met.

1 Charles Puzzanchera and Sarah Hockenberry. 2015. National Disproportionate Minority Contact Databook. Developed for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention by the National Center for Juvenile Justice. Available at
2 Dusten Hollist, Jacob Coolidge, Wes Delano, Ian Greenwood, Mike King, Tyson McLean, Patrick McKay, Chuck Harris, James Burfeind, and Dan Doyle. 2012. Assessing the Mechanisms That Contribute to Disproportionate Minority Contact in Montana's Juvenile Justice System. Social Science Research Laboratory, University of Montana.
3 Coutney Charish, Sebastian Davis, and Kelly Damphousse. 2004. Race/Ethnicity and Gender Effects on Juvenile Justice System Processing: Final Report. Prepared for the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs.
4 Michael Leiber, Dorinda Richetelli, and William Feyerherm. 2009. "Chapter 2: Assessment." Disproportionate Minority Contact Technical Assistance Manual, 4th Edition. Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
5 Indian Law and Order Commission. 2013. A Roadmap for Making Native American Safer: Report to the President & Congress of the United States. Retrieved from
6 Arya, Neelum, and Addie Rolnick. 2008. A Tangled Web of Justice: American Indian and Alaska Native Youth in Federal, State, and Tribal Justice Systems. Campaign for Youth Justice. Policy Brief, Race and Ethnicity Series, Volume 1.
7 Attorney General's Advisory Committee on American Indian/Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence. 2014. "Creating a Juvenile Justice System That Focuses on Prevention, Treatment, and Healing." Ending Violence so Children Can Thrive. Retrieved from
8 "Rethinking our Juvenile Justice System." pp. 171–201. Report of the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence. Attorney General's Advisory Committee on American Indian/Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence. 2014. "Creating a Juvenile Justice System that Focuses on Prevention, Treatment, and Healing." Ending Violence so Children Can Thrive.
11 Tanya H. Lee. 2015. "No Jail Time for Troubled Kids: Radical Fixes for Juvenile Justice." Indian Country Today Media Retrieved from
12 Christine Lindquist, Tasseli McKay, Mindy Herman Stahl, Ada Pecos Melton, Rita Martinez, and David J. Melton. 2014. Cross-Site Evaluation of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Tribal Green Reentry Program: Final Technical Report. Research Triangle Park, N.C.: RTI International.