When Native Americans Meet the Juvenile Justice System

by Ryan Seelau

What do Native American juvenile justice systems look like? And how can they more effectively deal with juvenile problems while simultaneously conveying their own communities’ unique cultural values? These are the questions I examined in a recent law review article entitled, “The Kids Aren’t Alright: An Argument to Use the Nation Building Model in the Development of Native Juvenile Justice Systems to Combat the Effects of Failed Assimilative Policies.” The article appears in the most recent Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law and can also be found on the Project for Indigenous Self-Determination website. It covers three main topics:

First, the article examines how Native American juveniles interact with justice systems – both on- and off-reservation. This section demonstrates that when Native youths are forced to interact with state or federal justice systems, they are exposed to values and policies designed by foreign (i.e. non-Native) governments. The consequences of such interactions are that, over time, relationships between Native peoples and their children are disrupted. Fortunately, more and more Native American communities are utilizing their own systems to adjudicate their youths. That said, oftentimes juvenile justice systems on Native American reservations mirror the Anglo-American systems used by the states and federal government and, thus, do not reflect Native concepts of justice.

The second section of the article presents the theoretical framework used to propose a solution to the question: How can U.S. Native nations more effectively interact with juvenile delinquents on reservations? The framework for answering this question is known as the Nation Building Model and draws from decades of research coming out of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development as well as the Native Nations Institute.

Finally, the article closes by applying the Nation Building Model to the realm of juvenile justice by suggesting that Native American tribes should seriously consider designing or re-designing their own juvenile justice systems to reflect their cultural values and expectations. In making this argument, the article looks at several case studies from U.S. tribes and at the positive results that have been achieved when Native nations re-take control over juvenile justice in their communities.

Ryan Seelau is a Senior Researcher at the Native Nations Institute (NNI), part of the University of Arizona’s Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy. He is an attorney with advanced law degrees (LLM and SJD) from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona’s John E. Rogers College of Law. Currently, in addition to his work with NNI, he is the co-founder of the Project for Indigenous Self-Determination – an NGO that does work with indigenous peoples in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America.




*Photo at top by Flickr user Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources