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Tribal Communities Explore Creative Alternatives to Incarceration

From elder meetings to equine therapy, programs focusing on healing are found to be cheaper and more effective than jail time.
Panoramic view of Hopi Reservation from Arizona State Route 264 a few miles from Oraibi. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Panoramic view of Hopi Reservation from Arizona State Route 264 a few miles from Oraibi. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Every community struggles to address crime in the most effective ways, and in ways that don’t just punish the offenders, but help prevent them from making the same mistakes in the future. And every type of community has its own set of challenges working against those goals. Native American communities are certainly no exception.

An online panel hosted by the American Probation & Parole Association last Thursday, “Alternatives to Incarceration in Indian Country,” began with some surprising statistics. Here’s one: 99 percent of all crimes committed in tribal areas in the Southwestern United States are attributable to alcohol or drug abuse. Another: Four in 10 tribal offenders held in local jails are there for non-violent, substance-abuse-related crimes, like drug possession, or DUIs. The types of substance abuse that these communities are dealing with might also be surprising: one speaker from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota said that opiates and intravenous drugs are now a bigger problem there than alcohol or marijuana.

It costs, on average, $26,000 a year to incarcerate someone. But it costs less than $5,000 a year to send them through drug court, and $5,000 to put them on probation with regular check-ins.

Locking people up doesn’t typically address the cause of the substance abuse problem, and it costs the communities a lot more money than treatment programs do. According to Kimberly Cobb, a research associate at the American Probation & Parole Association and the facilitator of the panel, it costs, on average, $26,000 a year to incarcerate someone. But, she said, it costs less than $5,000 a year to send them through drug court, and $5,000 to put them on probation with regular check-ins. Even the most relatively expensive of the alternatives to incarceration (ATIs), electronic home monitoring or GPS monitoring, only ranges from $2,000 to $6,000, Cobb said.

While GPS monitoring may sound a bit Orwellian, it can be a welcome alternative to jail, the panelists explained, and not just because it’s cheap. It allows people to stay involved in their daily routines—go to work, training programs, or counseling—and to surround themselves with the support systems that can help them get back on track. In order for this type of monitoring to really work, it should be paired with regular in-person visits, which can in turn benefit the continuing relationship between law enforcement and both the offenders and the wider community.

One panelist, Richard Hart, who works for the Washington State police department primarily within the Lummi Nation, said what works best is when officers return frequently to meet with the people they have arrested in the past to talk about their rehabilitation. It humanizes people on both sides, builds trust, and keeps lines of communication open—all of which help to improve overall public safety.

“Far too often, police officers are considered to be the bad guy,” said Hart. “By doing this program, I’ve found that we’re able to build a relationship with our offender, their family, and show them that we not only care about their safety, because we’re the guys who arrested them in the first place, but that we care about their success.”

ATIs can also be incredibly effective for juvenile offenders, the panelists said. When young people get into trouble, especially when drugs and alcohol are involved, there is often an underlying psychological or social issue at play that needs to be addressed if they are going to avoid future (and worse) interactions with the law.

“It’s critically important that the values and the components encompass empowerment, and that we’re looking not only at the behavior and the offense, but that we’re looking at the trauma, and we’re looking at pathways to healing that trauma,” said Stephanie Autumn, a member of the Hopi Nation and director of the Educational Development Center’s Tribal Youth Program, “and that we’re creating alternatives that comprehensively weave the family, the extended family community, and substance abuse and behavior health, from the very beginning.”

The panel mentioned all types of positive-reinforcement ATI programs that they said have been shown to work: meetings of tribal elders who would decide what an appropriate community-service punishment should be, cultural immersion camps where kids learn traditional arts such as quiltmaking, and even “equine therapy” where kids learn how to ride and take care of horses. Panelists joined in with success stories from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribe in Minnesota, among others.

Most of the webinar’s audience was made up of tribal justice agencies—people who are working to solve the very same problems across the country. When asked in a poll about their biggest obstacle to developing ATIs in their communities, the overwhelming response (77 percent) was lack of funding. To that end, two panelists from the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention offered some information about where agencies could apply for aid. They also noted that many of the programs they mentioned could easily be run by well-trained volunteers, or through partnerships with already-funded arts and cultural organizations.

ATIs aren’t always appropriate, of course: for instance, in the case of violent crimes, or repeat offenders. But there are so many costly and ultimately counterproductive incarcerations that could be prevented with a little creative experimentation. All of the panelists agreed that ATIs are most effective for first-time offenders, and those who say they want to work to make things right. In most cases, the people who committed the crimes are actively involved in shaping the program that will rehabilitate them. If the crime in question—for instance, a theft—has a victim associated with it, then the victims also must give approval to the ATI plan going forward.

A key component of the restorative justice philosophy governing many of these ATIs is the idea that everyone affected by the crime, including victims and family members, should take part in the process. That community component goes missing when, for instance, young offenders are taken out of their neighborhoods and sent to faraway juvie halls.

“We know our young people need to be in their homes, they need to be in their communities, they need to be in their schools, and they need to be thriving and succeeding, in order to realize their full potential,” said Autumn. And yet, she said, many tribal communities across the country have not yet even begun to experiment with alternatives to incarceration, perhaps because they are not aware of all the possibilities out there for them. “So,” she continued, “there is a lot of work ahead of us.”