Tribal Jails: 'Neither Safe nor Secure'
An editorial by U.S. Senator Jon Kyl
The United States, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Justice Department, operates and funds detention facilities throughout Indian Country as part of its trust responsibilities to Native Americans. According to a Justice Department study, American Indians experience violent crime at a rate more than twice the national average, yet tribal detention facilities have been grossly underfunded and are in an appalling state of disrepair.
A 2004 report by the Inspector General confirms that Indian detention facilitates are "neither safe nor secure." The report states that "it became abundantly clear that some facilities we visited were egregiously unsafe, unsanitary, and a hazard to both inmates and staff alike. BIA's detention program is riddled with problems ... and is a national disgrace."
I have visited Indian detention facilities in Arizona and have witnessed firsthand their deplorable and unsafe conditions. It has negatively affected many of the Indian tribes in Arizona. Take, for example, the Navajo Nation. It is approximately the size of West Virginia and has a population of more than 250,000. Because a number of the Nation's detention facilities have been closed for health and safety reasons, it only has [a total of] 59 jail beds. This incredibly low number, which the Nation estimates represents less than 10 percent of its needs, leads to severe overcrowding.
The Navajo Nation has stated that overcrowded jails cause the majority of tribal court judges to defer or reduce sentences. In many cases, the Nation has no choice but to release and return serious offenders to their community in a matter of hours.
Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to tragic results.
For instance, according to the Chinle Police Department, in early 2007, a Navajo man was arrested for the third time for domestic violence and aggravated assault of his wife. Due to a lack of jail space, the offender was released to make room for new arrestees. The offender immediately returned home and beat his wife so brutally she had to be hospitalized.
These problems are not unique to the Navajo Nation. Indeed, many other tribes in Arizona are facing similar problems and are forced to release offenders prematurely.
When offenders are released, it is nearly impossible for tribes to protect their communities and enforce the rule of law. The Nation has testified before Congress that the current system creates a revolving door for offenders, which leads to a complete lack of respect and disregard for the tribal criminal justice system. More important, it results in unsafe communities in and around Indian Country.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs and Justice Department can take a number of actions to improve the conditions of tribal detention facilities, though whether these conditions improve largely depends on the level of federal funding for tribal jails.
Consequently, I have advocated increased funding for tribal detention facilities in Arizona. Thankfully, Congressional funding committees have recently recognized the deplorable conditions of Indian detention facilities and recommended increased funding for Indian jails. The Bush Administration, however, must also make this issue a priority and include sufficient funding in its budget to address this crisis in Indian Country. If immediate action is not taken, crime rates on the reservation will continue to remain high and the communities in and around the reservations will be neither safe nor secure.
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