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Why Are American Indians Important as a “Category of Difference in the Criminal Justice System?

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Native Americans in the United States have reported to come from many different tribes. American Indians are likely to experience violent crimes at more than twice the rate of all other U.S

residents. The rate of violent crimes committed against Native Americans is substantially higher than any other minority group in the United States. Yet, little or no attention is paid to them. According to information collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), American Indians are likely to experience violent crimes at more than twice the rate of all other U.S. residents.

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The threat of increasing crime, particularly violent crime, is especially worrisome because we know far less than we would like about crime in Indian Country. The lack of good data on crime in Indian Country stems from (1) issues of culture, geography, and economics unique to American Indian reservations; (2) the limited administrative and technological resources available to tribal police departments; (3) inadequate coordination between tribal and Federal agencies; and (4) management problems common to both tribal and BIA police departments. The typical department that we describe is attempting to cope with an increasing workload (a change driven by rising crime, increased police involvement in the social concerns that relate to crime, and greater community demands for police services) and is doing so with a quite limited resource base. In fact, this characterization only begins to capture the severity and complexity of the challenges to reservation policing. Police in Indian Country function within a complicated jurisdictional web, answer to multiple authorities, may operate without strategic direction from their tribal governments, and often lack a sense of “partnership” with their service populations

In a review of one of the largest police departments in Indian Country, Naranjo and colleagues (1996) both echo and expand on these concerns.

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The direct influence of race is statistically insignificant for the most serious offenses when legally relevant variables (such as severity of the offense, or prior criminal record) are included in analyses; in these cases, the race differences in sentencing are explained by race differences in offending (Anderson, Elijah

1994). Social and behavioral science research, however, has moved beyond an examination of the direct effects of race on criminal justice processing into more methodologically sophisticated and nuanced studies, which show that indirect and cumulative racial effects continue to produce significant race differentials. Race may also interact with other variables (such as socioeconomic or family status) to affect outcomes in criminal justice processing. Much more research is needed, however, to understand the dynamics of criminal careers at different stages—particularly how experiences in the juvenile justice system affect future processing in the adult criminal justice system. There is strong and compelling evidence that racial discrimination does exist at various points in the criminal justice system )Baldus, David C., 1990). A considerable body of empirical research demonstrates that African Americans, and in particular, those African Americans who murder whites, are more likely to get the death penalty than those who murder African Americans, or than whites who are convicted of murdering whites.

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As can be seen, focal concerns theory was used here only as a framework to anticipate differences. The study does not possess the data necessary to formally test the theory among American Indians. Future research should conduct qualitative research within courtrooms to determine judges’ and other courtroom actors’ dispositions and explanations for sentencing decisions. Future researchers should continue to examine differences between all racial groups regarding the sentencing process, while paying special attention to American Indians and other frequently-forgotten racial groups.

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Anderson, Elijah. 1994. “The Code of the Streets.” The Atlantic Monthly, May 1994, pp. 81-94.

Baldus, David C., George Woodworth, and Charles A. Pulaski, Jr. 1990. Equal Justice and the Death Penalty: A Legal and Empirical Analysis. Boston, MA: Northeastern U. Press

Glaze, Lauren E. and Seri Palla. 2004. Probation and Parole in the United States, 2003. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin. NCJ 205336. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

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