Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Mass Incarceration and Police Violence in Native American Communities

By Jack Ross-PilkingtonPublished November 3, 2017

While police violence and mass incarceration are often discussed in the media, one community that is sometimes left out is Native Americans. Both problems are serious issues for the community. However, there are some possible solutions.

Corey Dee Kanosh was a member of the Kanosh Paiute Indian Reservation, in Millard County, Utah. He was well known for his passion for traditional crafts and dancing, winning many arts competitions. He had an infant son, named Robert. However, on October 1st, 2012, his mother called the police after he had been drinking and got into a car, hoping the police would only stop him. After a long car chase, Kanosh stopped the car and got out, running from the police. The sheriff's deputy then shot and killed him. He was 35.

Much media attention has been given to the subjects of mass incarceration and police violence among African-American communities. While these are incredibly important issues, less attention has been paid to mass incarceration and police violence among Native American peoples. Greater awareness and understanding is crucial for this problem to be addressed.

Mass incarceration among these communities is such an important issue because it affects a large portion of the population. In states where Native Americans comprise a relatively large part of the population, they are disproportionately represented in the prison system. In Minnesota, for example, Natives make up 1% of the state's population, yet they comprise 7.6% of the states prisoners. And while they are 15% of the population of Alaska, the prison population is more than double that. Compared to White American men, Native American men are four times likely to go to prison. This number is even higher for women, who are six times more likely to go to prison compared to their white counterparts.

The issue of mass incarceration is especially relevant to Native American youth. Since 44% are under the age of 25 , young people are a critically important part of the population. However, they make up 70% of youth in federal prisons . They are also more likely to be transferred to the adult prison system.
One factor that increases the rate of incarceration within the community is their unique legal standing. For example, if a one commits a crime that falls under the Major Crimes act (e.g. murder or burglary), they are prosecuted by federal courts. These courts tend to be harsher than state courts, especially for first-time offenders. In addition, sometimes criminals are punished twice - in both federal and tribal courts.

Along with mass incarceration, police violence is common in Native communities. Depending on the year, either Native Americans or African Americans are the community most likely to be fatally shot by police. Between 1999 and 2014, .21 out of every 100,000 were killed by police, which is slightly less than African Americans (.25 out of 100,000). This is despite the fact that there are nine times as many African Americans. Overall, Native Americans make up 1% of the total United States population, but 2% of police killings.

While the problem of police violence and mass incarceration among these communities are widespread and deep, there is a way forward. One possible solution is to reform the jurisdictions that they fall under. This would aim to do two things: increase tribal sovereignty, and reduce redundancy. An example of jurisdiction reform that happened recently was when Congress amended the Violence Against Women Act to allow tribal jurisdictions to punish domestic violence. Previously, if a Non-Native person committed an act of domestic violence against a Native person, they could not be punished by tribal courts. However, the amendment passed by Congress allowed tribal courts to prosecute these criminals.  In addition to Congress, the Supreme Court is another potential arena for jurisdiction reform. In the case of Nevada v. Hicks, the court decided that tribal courts did not have the jurisdiction to punish Non-Natives for crimes against Natives on reservations. If that case is overturned, tribal sovereignty will be made stronger.

While the statistics show that mass incarceration and police violence disproportionately affect Native communities, they do not tell the full story. Ultimately, these problems come from a lack of tribal sovereignty. When individual tribes - and not the federal government - are allowed to punish crimes and control their own justice system, these issues will start to disappear.