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South Dakota researchers scrutinize judicial system

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VERMILLION, S.D. ? Researchers from University of South Dakota continue to sort through data from the state's judicial system to determine if a racial disparity exists.

They scheduled a series of forums earlier this year to talk to American Indians about what should be examined as a part of the study but turnout was disappointing.

Still a handful of tribal members offered suggestions about the 50,000 to 70,000 cases between 1994 to 2000 included in the study.

Assembling data presents special challenges requiring computer programmers to develop software to compile and match data from law enforcement agencies and court records, said Steve Feimer, director of the USD Government Research Bureau.

Each agency records data differently because each has a separate records maintenance system. One recommendation that may come out of the study is for a uniform records system that would make it easier for officials to compare data in the future.

'Certainly there are technological fixes for this, but we should look at revamping it,' he said.

While no clear picture of the state's judicial system has emerged, Feimer said he expects to see some data deciphered by the end of the month.

The study may produce less than a full picture of racially based disparities in the South Dakota judicial system because it will not address possible racial profiling of minorities by law enforcement agencies. It will not focus on any issues regarding juveniles.

One case that may have fueled the need for the study was the June 1999 death of Robert Many Horses of the Standing Rock Reservation. Many Horses died after being left upside down in a trashcan. Four white teens with whom he had been drinking were believed to have contributed to his death. Initial charges against the teens were dismissed by a local magistrate and they were never brought to trial.

Allegations surfaced that the prosecutor failed to pursue the case further because the victim was an American Indian.

The U.S. Justice Department declined to pursue the death as a civil rights violation case.

Feimer said his organization hoped to get more comments from tribal members across the state to help define data they are studying, but forums during working hours netted few participants.

While the study may serve as an indicator of racial profiling in future studies, it isn't a racial profiling study, Feimer said.

It will focus more on adult criminal arrests, those charged with felonies under state jurisdiction and how the cases moved forward in the judicial system.

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While other studies looked at the justice system and how minorities are treated across the nation, few have looked specifically at what is happening with American Indians.

'The study will be the first such study,' said Feimer whose bureau has a state contract to determine if the cases of American Indians are treated differently than those of white offenders.

'The focus has been traditionally on blacks with a few of them on Hispanics,' he said.

Researchers also will examine regional differences in the state to see if American Indians are treated more harshly than other populations in border towns,' Feimer said, adding that looking at the caseload and outcomes in areas bordering reservations may provide revealing insights for researchers trying to gauge disparity and the health of the state's judicial system.

Tribal members suggested looking at the role cultural differences play in the disposition of cases in the state's courts.

'What we are going to be doing is a comparison between Indians and whites going through the state justice system,' Feimer said.

Age at arrest, race, gender, type of criminal charge at time of arrest, whether bond was granted, pre-trial documentation, if the offender was a state resident, charges at arraignment, prior arrest records, race of the victim, education levels, length of sentences and marital status will be studied.

The date of admission to prison and crime sentence descriptions will be studied to detect any historical differences in sentence length between whites and American Indians. Researchers will carefully scrutinize the disposition of cases and the pleas entered, he said.

In some cases, researchers may find individuals accepted lesser charges in a plea bargain rather than face possibly a conviction on a more serious charge. The representation of legal counsel will be carefully studied.

Federal officials are considering using the study later in looking at whether American Indians face tougher penalties for federal crimes, he said.

Victor Douville, a professor at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation, who spoke during the Lower Brule forum, suggested the composition of juries should be included as a part of the study since it could weigh heavily in the outcome of a case.

However, unlike many states, which have been watched more closely for civil rights violations and must maintain records of jury lists in the case files, they are unavailable in the case files of most defendants in South Dakota, Feimer said.

Douville pressed the issue saying many tribal members are tried before all-white juries which often bring an increased likelihood of a conviction while a more racially balance jury might render a different verdict.

Feimer said when the study is completed, the state hopes to establish a protocol for tracking the state's justice system.