The criminal justice system harms Native American people in unique ways, according to a recent study by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).
One of those ways is by lumping them together and burying them in the myriad layers of racial and ethnic disparity. “Other” is the single word that defines Native Americans. The U.S. Census Bureau identifies those in prison as American Indian/Alaska Native.
“In 2019, the latest year for which we have data, there were over 10,000 Native people locked up in local jails,” PPI reported. “Although this population has fluctuated over the past 10 years, the Native jail population is up a shocking 85% since 2000.”
PPI reported the number of Native Americans held in “Indian county jails,” located on tribal lands, increased by 61% from 2000 to 2018. During that same period, Native American populations decreased.
“Incarceration in Indian Country jails and Native incarceration in local jails has exploded since 2000,” PPI reported. “Government data publications breaking down incarcerated populations by race or ethnicity often omit Native people, or obscure them unhelpfully in a meaningless ‘Other’ category…” This masks the fact that this group has high rates of incarceration in jails and prisons when compared with other ethnic and racial groups.
“In jails, Native people had more than double the incarceration rate of White people, and in prisons this disparity was even greater,” PPI reported.
In 2019, 2.1% of those incarcerated in the federal penal system were Native people, according to PPI’s study. And they made up 2.3% of those people on federal community supervision in mid-2018. These numbers were reportedly larger than their share in the U.S. population.
The reach into tribal territory by the federal justice system is explained, in part, because “State law often does not apply, and many serious crimes can only be prosecuted at the federal level, where sentences can be harsher than they would be at the state level,” PPI reported.
“Native women are particularly overrepresented in the incarcerated population,” PPI reported. “They made up 2.5% of women in prisons and jails in 2010.” This is the most recent data until the 2020 U.S. Census is published. In the last Census, “Native women were just 0.7% of the total U.S. female population.”
Native youth are not immune to incarceration and racial disparities by the juvenile and criminal justice system, according to PPI.
“Their confinement rates, second only to those of Black youth, exceed those of White, Hispanic and Asian youth combined,” PPI reported.
“It’s wrong. It’s just another way of erasing a race.” said Gregory G. Coates, a Native American who has been locked up almost 47 years for a double murder he committed at age 17. He was incarcerated 16 days after he turned 18.
Coates is serving California’s old 7 years-to-life term. His sentence in prison jargon is what is known as a “Seven Up.” He has appeared before the parole board 11 times, starting in 1981. He said he was found suitable for parole in 2018, but then Gov. Jerry Brown used his executive authority to cancel the parole date.
Although nothing had changed, in 2019 Coates said he returned to the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) and was given a five-year denial, which means his next hearing is likely to take place in 2024.
“A (BPH) commissioner told me I should have been paroled in 1985,” said Coates. Since then, he said he’s also qualified for release under recently passed Youth Offender legislation.
Under California’s Elderly Parole Program (AB 3234), Coates said he is eligible to appear before the BPH because he is over 50 years of age and has served a minimum of 20 continuous years in custody — which is a requirement in the law.
In addition to freedom, “Our culture, land and language was taken away,” said Coates. “It was all outlawed.” He said the war against Native Americans never ended in the United States.
PPI research displays the number of youth, age 17 years and younger, per 100,000, who were incarcerated in juvenile facilities in 2019 as follows:
Asian, 5 per 100,000
White, 27 per 100,000
Hispanic 35 per 100,000
American Indian and Alaska Native 85 per 100,000
Black, 115 per 100,000
“Even the best data collection obscures the scale and scope of Native people in the criminal justice system,” the PPI study reported. “One glaring problem is that pesky ‘Other’ category where we sometimes find Asian, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, and American Indian/Alaska Native people.”
The report stated that “Native American people are not a monolith; there are 574 federally recognized Native American tribes as of March 2020.”
The report stressed the fact that “Native people on both tribal and non-tribal lands are overcriminalized,” concluding they are overrepresented among the incarcerated in the United States.