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Figures show drop in Indian Country jail population

The number of Native Americans held in Indian Country detention facilities fell by 9 percent in 2003, according to a new report from the Department of Justice.

As of midyear 2003, the date for which the latest statistics are available, there were 1,826 people in Indian jails, the Bureau of Justice Statistics said in a report released on Sunday. This figure is down from the 2,006 people held in the jails as ofmidyear 2002.

The report, "Prisoners in 2004," did not explain the drop. But this is the first time in four years that the federal government has cited a significant decline in the Indian jail population.

On the other hand, the number of people in state and federal prisons increased by 1.9 percent in 2004. A total of 1.5 million inmates are being held in these facilities, according to the report.

The majority of American Indian and Alaska Native offenders are incarcerated in state and federal prisons. The report, however, lumped Native Americans with Asians, Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians and persons of multiple races so it wasn't possible to determine how many were being held at the state and local level.

But it is the Indian Country system that has received significant attention in recent years due to controversy over the way the jails are managed. Data from 2001-2003 indicated that the facilities, as a whole, operate at 120 percent above their rated capacity. Many suffer from outdated infrastructure, limited funding and lack of staff.

"We are faced with criminals who have total disregard for our criminal justice system, because their government cannot incarcerate them without putting them at significant physical and health risk," Hope MacDonald-Lonetree, a Navajo Nation Council delegate, said in Senate testimony in June 2004. "It is a customary occurrence in our criminal justice system that upon a conviction being rendered, almost immediately the convicted criminal is let go moments, not days or weeks later, minutes rather."

An internal investigation by the Interior Department's Inspector General uncovered serious problems in the 74 jails in the Bureau of Indian Affairs system. The review found 11 deaths, 236 attempted suicides and 631 escapes but officials said many more went unreported.

"One jail administrator confirmed our concerns that incidents are underreported when he stated, 'What happens on the reservation stays on the reservation,'" the September 2004 report stated.

In April 2005, the Bureau of Justice Statistics gave the most recent update on the Indian Country jail population. According to the report, based on the same midyear 2003 figures cited above, domestic violence was responsible for 17 percent of the incarcerations.

Other violent crimes constituted 18 percent while alcohol-related crimes made up 11 percent of the incarcerations. Another 8 percent were drug related, the report stated.

According to the report, the incarcerations for alcohol-related offenses was down 8 percent. But drug offenses increased by 13 percent.

These figures correspond with the Uniform Crime Reporting statistics released by the FBI last week. That data showed a rise in violent crime arrests of American Indians and Alaska Natives for the year 2004. Tribal law enforcement agencies submitted statistics as part of the UCR program.

Overall, tribal, state and federal detention facilities are housing 23,624 Native Americans as of midyear 2003. This translates to an incarceration rate of 848 per 100,000 -- 19 percent higher than the overall national rate of 715 per 100,000.

Get the Bureau of Justice Statistics Report:
Prisoners in 2004 (October 2005)

Earlier Department of Justice Jail Reports:
Year 2003 | Year 2002 | Year 2001 | Year 2000 | Years 1998-1999

Inspector General Final Jail Report:
Text | PDF

Inspector General Interim Jail Report:
Text | PDF