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The juvenile justice system in Indian country is broken. Native youth are vulnerable and traumatized. They become involved in the system at high rates, and they are more likely than other youth to be incarcerated and less likely to receive necessary health, mental-health, and education services. Congressional leaders and the Obama administration have made the needs of Indian country, especially improvement of tribal justice systems, an area of focus in recent years. The release of two major reports—one from a task force convened by the Attorney General to study violence and trauma among Native youth and the other from a bipartisan commission appointed to recommend improvements to criminal justice in Indian country—has further trained this focus on improving juvenile justice. Two recommendations appear again and again in every report and article: give tribes more control over their juvenile justice systems and reduce the reliance on secure detention. Yet, implementing these recommendations seems next to impossible.

Taking as its starting point these two devastating reports, this Article provides a thorough description and diagnosis of the reasons that the Indian country juvenile justice system continues to fail Native youth, one that has been missing from the legal and policy literature. It provides a careful analysis of the law governing juvenile delinquency jurisdiction in Indian country. While it echoes others’ observations that the confusing jurisdictional web is part of the reason Native youth remain neglected and invisible in federal and state systems, and ill-served by tribal systems, this Article’s detailed analysis of the law reveals much greater potential for tribal control under current laws than others assume exists. More importantly, the Article moves beyond the familiar complaint about the jurisdictional web to examine the inner workings of each sovereign’s approach to Indian country justice, providing the fuller picture necessary to identify and implement both large-scale and small-scale solutions. As federal and tribal leaders debate legal and policy changes to the Indian country juvenile justice system, including potential amendments to the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, federal criminal laws, and Public Law 280, this Article’s timely investigation of barriers to improvement will elucidate a better path to healing, not harming, Native youth.

Publication Citation

19 N.Y.U. J. Legis. & Pub. Pol'y 49 (2016).