A new report details how Montana is sending more people to prison than it releases, with Native Americans making up a disproportionate share of the prison population.
A new report has been released from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national nonprofit organization tasked with helping Montana officials reduce prison spending and overcrowding. The Missoulian reported on the release of the study:
The report, presented Tuesday to lawmakers and others appointed to Montana’s Commission on Sentencing, found a 12 percent rise in arrests between 2009 and 2015, despite an 18 percent decline in property and violent crimes between 2000 and 2014. It also found Native Americans represent a disproportionate share of those totals, accounting for nearly one in five arrests while making up only 7 percent of the state’s population.
Nearly half of the arrests were for parole violations and failure to appear in court, with Native Americans representing more than a quarter. This means that most of the state’s resources are being spent arresting the same people over and over and not new criminals.
“There’s literally been no interest in drilling down and really seeing what’s going on,” said Jim Taylor, legal director at the ACLU of Montana. Taylor said the Montana Department of Corrections has more than three decades of data showing that Native Americans account for a large portion of Montana’s arrest total. “We think there needs to be more study done by the state and more training throughout the system on cultural differences and the effects of historical trauma.”
Utah Rep. Eric Hutchings offered to help Montana officials reduce their prison population. Hutchings told The Missoulian that he helped his state release “certain people who are not really criminals, they’ve just done criminal things.” Hutchings also spoke of Utah’s efforts to reduce hundreds of penalties to misdemeanors, and adopted new mental health and substance abuse programs.
The Reservation to Prison Pipeline
In May 2014, the Prison Policy Initiative released an analysis of prison population numbers by state. The numbers were based off the 2010 census. According to the census, American Indians are over-represented in prisons and jails across 18 states. The U.S. government has been searching for ways to reduce the amount of Native Americans in the prison system, including a federal review of prison sentences for Native Americans.
In April 2015 The Wall Street Journal reported that Ralph Erickson, a chief federal district court judge for North Dakota, was leading the panel behind the review. The panel, known as the Tribal Issues Advisory Group, is made up of 22 judges and law enforcement administrators, 11 of which are Native American.
“No matter how long I have been sentencing in Indian Country, I find it gut-wrenching when I am asked by a family member of a person I have sentenced why Indians are sentenced to longer sentences than white people who commit the same crime,” Erickson told the Journal.
The Journal also reported that the number of Native Americans incarcerated in federal prisons has increased by 27% in just the last five years. In South Dakota, the state with the fourth highest percentage of Native American residents, Native Americans compose 60% of the federal caseload, but only 8.5% of the total population.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Native Americans are incarcerated at a rate 38% higher than the national average.
Unfortunately, it’s not only prison which affects Native communities at higher rates. Another disturbing statistic is the amount of police killings of Native Americans. “The racial group most likely to be killed by law enforcement is Native Americans. While Native Americans only make up 0.8 percent of the population, they make up 1.9 percent of all police killings,” writes The Free Thought Project.
These policies – disproportionate imprisonment and murder by cop – are simply the latest in a long line of assaults against members of First Nations and tribes in the United States. If the original people of this land cannot even get the respect and representation they deserve then what hope do modern Americans have? As more activists focus their energy on the future they want to build they must include Native Americans and other oppressed communities in the fight for liberation. Until we are all free, none of us are free.
Derrick is available for interviews.
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