Juvenile Justice

American Indian youth are over-represented in state and federal juvenile justice systems and Indian youth in the system are more likely to face harsher treatment in the most restrictive environments. AI/AN youth are 50 percent more likely than White youth to receive the most punitive measures, including pepper spray, restraint, and isolation, and such measures may be disproportionately applied to Indian youth.1

The violent crime rate among American Indians is twice that of the U.S national rate. Tribal communities are also afflicted by high rates of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, alcohol abuse, and gang involvement. Given such factors, many tribal youth are exposed to multiple risk factors, which can contribute to delinquency. Native youth have very high rates of violent victimizations and exposure to violence. They are overrepresented in arrests for alcohol, drug offenses, and running away. They are also overrepresented in the most restrictive placements and interventions.2

While the violent crime rate for U.S. youth has steadily declined over the past several years, the rate of violent juvenile crime in tribal communities continues to grow. Risk factors for delinquency for the nearly two million American Indians who live on or near tribal lands are compounded by a lack of social services. Inadequate resources for their juvenile justice systems are a challenge for tribal communities, resulting in insufficient training of law enforcement and other justice personnel, and a shortage of programs that comprehensively combat juvenile delinquency through appropriate prevention, intervention, and sanction activities.3

Although there are few evidence-based programs that focus on NA/AN youth disparity issues,4 there have been some successful programs for improving their juvenile justice outcomes:

Lower Brule Sioux Tribe’s Talking Circles

The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota began their Talking Circles program in 2011 as a part of the girls’ juvenile probation as an alternative to detention. The program functions to connect the youth with positive role models and mentors from their community. Participating in Talking Circles allows the young women to discuss whatever they are thinking about (positive or negative), resolve conflict, and choose how to manage their circle. Participants in this program have been reported to have a decrease in suicide attempts, reduction in gang activity, improved school attendance, increase in graduation rates, and overall improved compliance with probation conditions.5

Village of Kake, Alaska’s Adult and Youth Circle Peacemaking

The Kake Youth Circle Peacemaking group is an Alternative Dispute Resolution Group. The Alaska State Court System orders that minors consuming alcohol and first time offenders be diverted to the Kake Youth Circle Peacemaking group. Youth participants act as the facilitators while adults are often invited to participate and support from the community is essential. The group’s success has been measured through Tribal member’s participation, the time taken to hear cases, and the restoration of relationships. There are additional circles held for follow-up cases and celebration circles for participants who have achieved milestones.6


Tribal Youth Programs and Services
This webpage from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention provides brief summaries of programs and services geared towards tribal youth to prevent victimization and juvenile delinquency, reduce violent crime, and improve juvenile justice systems.

Building Culturally Relevant Youth Courts in Tribal Communities (PDF, 118 pages)
This resource by American Indian Development Associates draws on the ideas and expertise of many who work in youth courts throughout the United States, as well as on the experience of staff at the National Youth Court Center at the American Probation and Parole Association, who research and work with youth courts on a national level.

Minority Youth in the Juvenile Justice System, Disproportionate Minority Contact (PDF, 12 pages)
National Conference of State Legislatures Research by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and the Center for Children’s Law and Policy suggests that minority youth receive harsher treatment than their white counterparts at nearly every stage of the juvenile justice process.

Youth Gangs in Indian Country (PDF, 16 pages)
This resources describes the nature and makeup of youth gangs in Indian Country by drawing on research findings from a survey conducted by the National Youth Gang Center (NYGC).


1 Cross, 2008
2 Overview of American Indian Youth in Tribal, State, and Federal Juvenile Justice Systems, 2014
3 Tribal Court Clearinghouse
4 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2016
5 U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of the Interior, 2014
6 U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of the Interior, 2014

Youth Briefs

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Youth who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and especially young adults of transition age, should be involved in planning for life after high school as early as possible and no later than age 16. Transition services should stem from the individual youth’s needs and strengths, ensuring that planning takes into account his or her interests, preferences, and desires for the future.

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Research links early leadership with increased self-efficacy and suggests that leadership can help youth to develop decision making and interpersonal skills that support successes in the workforce and adulthood. In addition, young leaders tend to be more involved in their communities, and have lower dropout rates than their peers. Youth leaders also show considerable benefits for their communities, providing valuable insight into the needs and interests of young people

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Statistics reflecting the number of youth suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and co-occurring disorders highlight the necessity for schools, families, support staff, and communities to work together to develop targeted, coordinated, and comprehensive transition plans for young people with a history of mental health needs and/or substance abuse.

Young Adults Formerly in Foster Care: Challenges and Solutions

Nearly 30,000 youth aged out of foster care in Fiscal Year 2009, which represents nine percent of the young people involved in the foster care system that year. This transition can be challenging for youth, especially youth who have grown up in the child welfare system.

Coordinating Systems to Support Transition Age Youth with Mental Health Needs

Research has demonstrated that as many as one in five children/youth have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Read about how coordination between public service agencies can improve treatment for these youth.

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Civic engagement has the potential to empower young adults, increase their self-determination, and give them the skills and self-confidence they need to enter the workforce. Read about one youth’s experience in AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).