Since you asked: What data exists about Native American people in the criminal justice system?

Problems with data collection - and an unfortunate tendency to group Native Americans together with other ethnic and racial groups in data publications - have made it hard to understand the effect of mass incarceration on Native people.

by Roxanne Daniel, April 22, 2020

The scarcity of data on Native Americans in the U.S. criminal justice system comes up a lot in our conversations with activists and reporters, who rightly wonder why Native populations are often excluded from comparisons with other racial and ethnic groups. While Census data reveals that Native populations are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, other information that could shed more light on the issue is sparse. So, we compiled the information that does exist — which is fractured and hard to locate — in one place below.

Preface: What the Census data says

We’ve previously used data from the 2010 Census to analyze incarcerated populations by race/ethnicity and sex for each state. In our analysis, data on prisons and jails were combined. We found that, in 2010, there were a total of 37,854 American Indian/Alaskan Natives in adult correctional facilities, including 32,524 men and 5,132 women (and 198 who were 17 or younger). That is equivalent to a total incarceration rate of 1,291 per 100,000 people, more than double that of white Americans (510 per 100,000). In states with large Native populations, such as North Dakota, American Indian/Alaskan Native incarceration rates can be up to 7 times that of whites. Once the 2020 Census data is released, we will update our analysis, since it is 10 years old now.

Other data on Native Americans in the criminal justice system

Prisons: In 2016, 19,790 Native men and 2,954 Native women (22,744 total) were incarcerated in U.S. state and federal prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) series. The NPS series reports the population of state and federal prisons – but not local jails – by race/ethnicity and sex, but the most recent data available with that level of detail is from 2016. However, other sources supplement these findings:

  • BJS reports an increase to 23,701, in Prisoners in 2017. Oklahoma tops the list as the state with the highest number of American Indian/Alaskan Natives incarcerated, followed by Arizona, Alaska, and California. However, this data is not broken down further by sex and race.
  • Limited state-level data is also available from some state Departments of Corrections, like Alaska’s, which identifies Alaskan Native populations in its annual Offender Profile. However, many other states, even those with large Native populations like California and Texas, group these populations into an “other” category when reporting demographics. (More on that in our discussion of data limitations below.)

Jails: The BJS annual report on jail inmates estimates 9,700 American Indian/Alaskan Native people – or 401 per 100,000 population – were held in local jails across the country as of late June, 2018. That’s almost twice the jail incarceration rates of both white and Hispanic people (187 and 185 per 100,000, respectively). Frustratingly, this data is also not reported by sex.

The 2016 BJS Jails in Indian Country report identifies 80 facilities operating on tribal lands, holding 2,540 people – 1,750 men and 620 women – in mid-2016. The number of inmates admitted to Indian country jails was 9,640 during the month of June 2016, giving us an idea of “jail churn” in facilities on tribal lands. Additionally, this report is one of the very few sources for this population’s offense data, although even here, about 35% of offenses are unhelpfully categorized as “other.”

Youth: People under the age of 21 make up 42% of American Indian/Alaskan Native populations in the United States, so Native youth confinement is a special concern. With a detention rate of 255 per 100,000 in 2015, Native youth are approximately three times more likely to be confined than white youth (83 per 100,000). In Indian country jails, approximately 6% of the confined population was 17 or younger in 2016; unfortunately, the number of youth held in other adult prisons and jails is not broken down by race/ethnicity. The Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement reports data on Native youth in juvenile justice facilities across the U.S., most recently for 2017, including details about offense type, facility type, sex, age, and more.

Contributing to these confinement rates is disproportionate police contact: Native youth are arrested at a much higher rate than white youth. The 2018 arrest rate for Native youth was 2,251 per 100,000 while white youth were arrested at a rate of 1,793 per 100,000.

Data collection from Native populations suffers from a number of limitations

Data collection efforts in tribal communities face a number of problems that limit the data’s accuracy and comprehensiveness.

According to the National Institute of Justice, issues such as difficulty in outreach, overlapping jurisdictions, and differences between tribal justice systems make the collection of data from these communities especially challenging. U.S. government policies and priorities also limit the data it collects and reports about Native populations:

  • The DOJ has moved slowly: A Department of Justice (DOJ) oversight report in compliance with the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) states that the “TLOA requires the Department’s BJS to collect data related to crimes in Indian country. However, 7 years after TLOA became law, its data collection and reporting efforts are still in development.”
  • Reporting is voluntary: According to the same report,“…because participation in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program is voluntary, not all tribes report crime statistics into the UCR database. As a result, Indian country crime statistics are so outdated and incomplete as to be virtually useless.” The BJS derives most of its crime data from the UCR program, which is especially incomplete when it comes to tribal jurisdictions’ data. The DOJ report found that while “207 tribes reported to the UCR in 2014, only 115 tribes submitted complete information that was included in the final UCR report.” It’s worth mentioning that there are, as of 2017, 226 tribal law enforcement agencies recognized by the federal government. Assuming the same number existed in 2014, that means 19 (8%) did not report crime data at all.
  • Data collection does not distinguish between tribes: According to the DOJ report, the National Crime Victimization Survey “does not allow the calculation of separate crime statistics for each American Indian tribe.” A report from the United States Sentencing Commission’s Tribal Issues Advisory Group also cites a lack of accurate databases in tribal courts, consistent and comparable disaggregation, and data sharing between federal and tribal entities.
  • Data aren’t used to help Native communities: The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s Report notes that the limited data that is collected has not been used to “evaluate and improve” law enforcement activities in Indian country. This adds to the strain caused by the general lack of cooperation between U.S. and tribal justice systems: According to a report by the National Tribal Judicial Center, federal and state correctional facilities “do not notify tribes of inmate release to parole or probation.” The report notes that tribal “protection orders are not validated by or enforced by state courts or state law enforcement. No outside agencies honor tribal court subpoenas.” This lack of reciprocity worsens the already countless issues with data collection and sharing.
  • Cultural and socioeconomic barriers lead to undercounting: More broadly, a “distrust of the U.S. government, a youth-heavy population, nontraditional addresses, low internet access, language and literacy barriers, weather and road access issues, and high rates of poverty and houselessness” create a deeply problematic undercounting of American Indian/Alaskan Native people. (A report by Rewire.News examines the consequences of this undercounting, including lower representation in Congress, funding deficits in health and human services, and a decline in tribal recognition and enrollment.)

“Other” data obscurities

Criminal justice data often uses racial and ethnic categories to break down the disproportionately high representation of Black and Hispanic populations in prisons and jails. Beyond these categories, however, lies the illusive “other” designation, which lumps together Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians, and of course, American Indians and Alaskan Natives. However, as the Census data reveals, disproportionate incarceration rates for these groups are not negligible. This practice obscures differences between these groups and makes it difficult to determine how the justice system plays a role in Native communities. Specifically:

  • The Bureau of Justice Statistics categorizes American Indian/Alaskan Natives as “other” in their Felony Sentences in State Courts data series. According to research by the Native American Voting Rights Coalition, several Native women surveyed mentioned that their husbands/partners were ineligible to vote due to felony convictions, contributing to a variety of barriers that hinder Native American political participation. The lack of disaggregated data makes it difficult to determine the exact proportion of Natives who are disenfranchised.
  • According to the American Indian and Alaskan Natives in Local Jails report, there were 56,400 individuals in jails – in addition to those categorized as “single race” American Indian/Alaskan Native – who identified as American Indian/Alaskan Native and another race(s) or ethnicity, suggesting higher rates of incarceration nationwide if multi-racial individuals were included in Native population counts or rates.
  • Rewire.News’s report also highlights how gender categorization of Native populations can often obscure those who identify as Two Spirit, non-binary, or transgender.

As it stands, there are many more questions than answers about Native Americans in the criminal justice system. Until criminal justice agencies overcome the limitations on data collection — and until the offices that publish the data are willing to list Native Americans as a distinct demographic group, rather than a member of an “Other” category — informational gaps will continue to make it difficult to understand how overcriminalization has impacted Native populations.

Roxanne Daniel was a Smith College student providing research support at the Prison Policy Initiative.. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

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