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Complete approach to public safety


Many tribal governments suffer shortages of policing support through the BIA and federal budget allocations and are underserved by state and county policing resources in Public Law 280 jurisdictions. Many tribal communities are lobbying the federal government for funds to augment public safety within their communities. More effective and culturally understanding policing is a goal for most Indian communities. Many gaming tribes have invested their own funds in more police and tribally controlled police. Public safety in Indian country, often lacking under state, county or federal jurisdictions, needs strengthening and additional resources.

Nevertheless, focusing primarily on gaining additional policing resources will not solve the justice and public safety issues confronting contemporary tribal communities. Policing is one element within a complete justice and safety system, which should also include courts, rehabilitation and education services, alternative sentencing, incarceration services, and parole and probation services, as well as the integration of traditional, tribally specific philosophies and understandings of justice, safety and restoration.

Currently, the BIA's Office of Justice Services has only two staff members and limited funding for tribal courts, and no rehabilitation or probation funds for tribal communities. Tribal courts and police departments are often patched-together organizations from a variety of federal programs and tribal funding sources. BIA jail conditions in Indian country are the subject of federal investigation, and in several reservations detainee conditions are deemed inhuman by tribal courts and communities. Tribal jails are overcrowded and often unsafe. BIA studies find there are too few police and detention officers serving Indian populations when compared to national statistics. Indians are incarcerated in federal, county and state jails at significantly higher rates than our population share. Generally, Indian communities do not like their members sent to county, state or federal jails, as they are seen as removing individuals from the community, and are not culturally informed or rehabilitative environments. Most tribal courts are underfunded and face large case loads, and few coordinated resources for rehabilitation.

Justice and safety are in crisis mode for many Indian communities. Creating a complete justice system in tribal communities will not be accomplished by federal funding alone. A strong emphasis for funding tribal police will also require checks and balance from tribal courts and governments, and communities. Most likely the federal government will not provide enough funding to support effective justice and safety in Indian country, let alone encourage a system that is culturally understanding and responsive to community needs and understandings of justice and well-being.

Tribal communities should seek more complete approaches to justice. Each community has its own tradition of justice to draw on. When appropriate and agreed upon, tribal communities can use low-cost traditional forms of resolving disputes, and reaching out to wrongdoers, in order to reclaim them within the communities' moral and cultural compass. Many tribal cultures emphasize recovery and restoration of relationships after crimes and moral infractions have occurred. Tribal community should demand return to moral and cultural responsibility from their leaders, elders, women, youth, community members and contemporary institutions of justice, policing, rehabilitation and incarceration. Existing social and rehabilitation services, as well as courts, police and jails should coordinate to serve and conform to the goals and values of the communities. Federal funding and American-style courts, police and jails may be supportive in meeting the challenges of contemporary justice and crime issues, but the recovery of justice and well-being can only come from within the communities themselves.