Report: Courts sentence Indians to longer jail terms


The U.S. Sentencing Commission is currently investigating the disproportionate incarceration of Native Americans in the U.S., particularly on reservations.

The Tribal Issues Advisory Group–made up of 22 judges and law-enforcement officials, 11 of which are Natives–will be spearheading this extensive federal review.

“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,” wrote Ralph Erickson, head of the committee and chief federal district court judge for North Dakota, in a 2014 letter.

Over the past 5 years, the number of Native Americans incarcerated within the federal prison system has increased by 27%. In South Dakota, Native Americans make up nearly 60% of federal cases, yet they account for a mere 9% of the state population.

All punishment on reservations is tried in federal court, as opposed to local or state governments. In many cases, this skews what might otherwise be a routine proceeding.

“Every American, except Native Americans, has a direct democratic voice in their local and state laws. For Native Americans, this is all governed federally,” stated Heather Dawn Thompson, a former South Dakota federal prosecutor, to the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s 2003 “Report of the Native American Advisory Group” noted that “The average sentence received by an Indian person convicted of assault in New Mexico state court is six months. The average for an Indian convicted of assault in federal court in New Mexico is 54 months.”

Neil Fulton, a member of the committee and and chief federal public defender for North and South Dakota, cites a number of cases he’s encountered as clear examples of this disparity.

In 2011, Fulton represented a Native American man who had punched a man in a casino fight on a North Dakota reservation. He was sentenced to 45 months in prison for assault. Fulton suspects the charge for such a crime would be significantly less severe in any other context.

The case of Dana Deegan shows that these sentencing issues can go both ways. Deegan pleaded guilty to second-degree murder after abandoning her newborn son to die in 1998. She left court with a 10 year sentence, referred to by Judge Myron Bright as “the most clear sentencing error” he’d witnessed.

The issue of inequality within the court system is immensely complex. It’s difficult to pin down cut and dry causes and solutions, but the Tribal Issues Advisory Group strives to create some momentum for a better future.

The committee began meeting last month and plans to release their report in May 2016. Formal recommendations will be issued to the overarching Sentencing Committee to establish a plan to eliminating clear injustice in the court system.

The Lakota People’s Law Project issued a report in February about the disproportionate incarceration rates for Native Americans. We are committed to help fixing a broken criminal justice system that continues to harm Indians and their families at disproportionate rates.


15 thoughts on “Report: Courts sentence Indians to longer jail terms”

  1. My man has been in prison since 1998 and still has maybe 10 more years and he didnt murder or rape anyone and he is from Rosebud

  2. They justify it in their sentencing reports – Going as far as stating that becuz of RACE&Addiction, that jail & long term probation would b beneficial to Native Americans – Even if the charge has nothing to do with alcohol, etc. – But, I think it does the opposite, causes unemployment, institutionalize natives, whom have been institutionalized since forced boarding schools, addiction, self medicating, depression, etc. – Also, the longer the jail term = more $$$ for private funded prisons, etc.

  3. What happened to the constitution? That all men are equal under God. You cannot do this injustice to the original keepers of America. That is so wrong on so many levels. And the world scorns you for it. Shame

  4. My daughter Ashton is sitting out part of her sentence right now. I dont even know where to start. Ok first of all she was a student at B.H.S.U. out in spearfish s.d.. She contracted T.B. while at school. We brought her home to heal up and for other treatments. Just a few months ago she went down to pick up her paycheck from K.F.C. where she’s was employed. On her way back she was pulled over by the Pierre police. They ran a warrant check. Come to find out she had a warrant out of Lawrence Co.. I went and asked the cop about it and all he told me is it was in Jan. Of last year that a grand jury had indicted Ashton on several charges. They were something like fraud,impersonating, and credit card theft. My daughter up to this point has a spotless background check. They took her out to Hughes co. Jail and locked her up for two or three days. Lawrence co. finally came and extradited her back up to their jail. I tried for several days and finally got the money to get her out. I had to find an attorney and I did out of deadwood. He was not a good att.. skipping ahead she made altogther 5 or 6 trips out to deadwood for court. She finally went to court and her attorney advised that she should just plead guilty to a lessor charge because if she was to continue to fight this it was gonna get really expensive. He also told her since it was her first time getting charged that all she would probably get is probation. It did not turn out that way. Judge Percy sentenced her to 2 years of supervised probation, a 1500.00 dollar fine and 25 days of jail with 5 days if credit served. She got a bad deal. I told her not to take her lawyers advice and continue to fight these charges. I think he actually scared her into it. He told her if she went through and they found her guilty that they would garnish her wages and a bunch of other stuff. I told Ashton not to and that I would continue to help her with all lawyers fees and whatever else. Her lawyer was not good. He did nothing but run her into the ground. As I was saying earlier she is now employed at a new job and her employer is letting her sit out 12 of her 25 day sentence.
    I used to believe in this justice system but not anymore. They judged Ashton in my opinion on her last name alone because she has a big Indian last name. I wrote several letters to try and find help for ash but to no avail. Contact me at my email address if you need more info. Thank you for your time, Lyle G.

  5. Many thoughts pass through my mind while considering the reasons behind this horrible injustice…. attempt to keep Indians locked up in a sort of detox (FAIL)
    2. prison and court systems profit from it
    3. scapegoating Indians
    4. fear of Indians..keep them locked up as to keep them under our thumb
    I pray that this stops and there will be justice!

  6. I’ve been locked up for no reason at all ( more than once )
    Also jailed for stopping my niece’s boyfriend from beating her
    Had to fight that one in court
    I won that one
    The list goes on
    My advice !
    Make no deals with who would rather see you incarcerated
    And or in Jail

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