Native Americans and the Criminal Justice System
Edited by Jeffrey I. Ross and Larry Gould
Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2006
In the foreword to this book, editors Jeffrey Ross and Larry Gould correctly note that Native Americans have among the highest rates of imprisonment, substance abuse, victimization from violent crimes, and evidence numerous other indicators of social distress. However, the subject of Native Americans and the criminal justice system has been largely ignored by U.S. criminologists and social scientists more generally. Given this neglect, Ross and Gould’s book is a welcome contribution.
The book consists of two major sections (“Theoretical Issues,” and “Current Policy Issues”) and a total of 16 chapters, several of them written by Native American authors. Collectively, the chapters present a nice balance of historical, theoretical, and empirical emphases which assist in an understanding of the current plight of Native Americans and the criminal justice system. While each chapter makes important contributions, given space constraints, this review will make some general comments, followed by a brief review of some specific chapters which I found to be particularly instructive.
Any consideration of Native American criminal justice issues must pay attention to important historical developments. Ross and Gould’s introductory chapter notes that European contact with Native Americans resulted in the criminalization of various traditional behaviors that were acceptable and controlled through different methods prior to colonization. This point is further emphasized in Chapter 3 by Dorothy Bracey (“Criminalizing Culture”) who focuses on the criminalization of dancing, the use of peyote, and Native-American religious activities, she notes: “the very institutions that might have produced greater adherence to the law have been undermined by the law itself” (p.38). Chapter 6 by Larry Gould (“Alcoholism, Colonialism and Crime”) traces the impact of alcohol on Indians - he suggests that the introduction of alcohol was the single most disruptive influence on Native Americans, and was used by Europeans not only for profits but also as a means of colonization and subjugation. The continued negative impact of this substance is revealed in high rates of binge drinking and deaths from driving under the influence experienced by Native Americans. Also important to consider historically is the lasting impact of residential boarding schools, which beginning in the 1880s, forcibly removed Indian children from their homes.
Chapter 2 by Marilyn Holly contrasts the Navajo criminal justice system with Western “vertical” models of justice, and points out that there is no word in the Navajo language that precisely translates to the concept of guilt. Holly also notes that, in contrast to the current U.S. criminal justice system, compensation/restitution and apology are the foundations of Navajo criminal law. James Zion (chapter 4) explores more general connections between indigenous and restorative justice.
The “Current Policy Issues” section of the book contains several interesting empirical chapters, including Eileen Luna-Firebaugh and Samuel Walker’s chapter (8) on law enforcement in Indian country. These authors report on an original study which found that approximately 170 reservations in the United States have law enforcement departments, but these departments are generally characterized by low levels of pay for officers and issues of accountability, particularly in situations where tribes receive policing services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Jeffrey Ian Ross’ chapter (9) turns a different lens on law enforcement issues, examining policing of Native Americans in urban environments. He notes that similar to other ethnic minority groups in the United States, Native Americans harbor a considerable amount of distrust towards the police.
Chapter 12 by Nicholas Peroff explores the interesting and complex issue of the relationship between Indian “gaming” and crime. Chapter 14 examines issues related to juvenile crime and justice, noting the impact of deprived social and economic conditions on high rates of juvenile crime and victimization in Native American communities.
While there is certainly some unevenness in writing across the 16 chapters (as is characteristic of any book of edited readings), Native Americans and the Criminal Justice System will be a useful addition to the libraries of students of Native Americans and crime in particular, and minorities and criminal justice issues more generally.
Washington State University Vancouver