Law \ Legal

Report: Native Americans Significantly Overrepresented In U.S. Prisons 


A recent report released by the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge reveals a significant overrepresentation of Native American people in the U.S. prison system, which worsens in states with larger native populations. 

According to the report, Native American people are incarcerated 38 percent over the national average and are overrepresented in the prison populations of 19 states compared to other races and ethnicities.

In North Dakota, where Native American people constitute just under 6 percent of the population according to most recent Census data, Native incarceration rates jump to seven times higher than the incarceration rates of white people. 

In Montana, which has a more significant native population at 7 percent, Natives represent 20 to 34 percent of the state’s state prison population.

According to the study, the discrepancies in incarceration rates among natives and other racial groups are tied to the complexity of criminal jurisdiction and historical traumas. 

“Like many modern challenges in Indian Country, over-incarceration of Indigenous people is intimately tied to colonial violence and upheld by policies throughout the years,” said Ciara Hansen, one of the study’s authors who works as a clinical psychologist at Northern Navajo Medical Center. 

“Paternalistic solutions applied to Native communities often miss the important step of seeking to understand the issue from the community’s perspective. This report offers a starting point for discussion and knowledge sharing.”

The report also found that Native Americans die by police brutality at triple the rate of white Americans and well over double Black Americans. In addition, Native American young men were sentenced more harshly than any other racial group.

In one example cited in the report, 2008 sentencing data showed that in South Dakota, which has a high percentage of Native Americans relative to most states, Natives prosecuted for aggravated assault in federal court were sentenced to 62 percent longer prison terms than those charged in state court. 

“The report not only highlights the painful and unacceptable treatment of Native people in the criminal justice system, but also underscores the overreliance on incarceration to solve community issues,” said Bria Gillum, a senior program officer at MacArthur, in the press release announcing the report. 

“It is our hope that the report contributes to the growing conversation about racial disparities in this broken system, sparks deeper collaboration between state and tribal agencies, and leads to investments in diversion services that can end this devastating cycle.”

There has been a 25 percent jump in the number of jails on Native American land since 2000, which the report authors said has led to more natives arrested for more minor crimes and longer sentences. 

The report’s recommendations to curb the trend of over-incarcerating Native Americans include strengthening the tribal justice systems and working in a better context with the community. 

The full report, titled “Over-Incarceration of Native Americans: Roots, Inequities and Solutions,” can be read here. 

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