On a morning he should have been in middle school, 12-year-old Isaac Durham collapsed on the sidewalk after drinking a fifth of vodka stolen from a Circle K in Flagstaff, Arizona. After the paramedics pumped his stomach, he was charged with underaged consumption of alcohol and became a juvenile offender for the first time.
In the seven years that followed, Durham, a member of the Hopi Tribe, spent five years, on and off, in juvenile detention. Before he was locked up, he strategically bounced between the reservation and non-Indian land to avoid punishment—exploiting the divide between tribal and county jurisdictions.
“By the age of 19, I was a full-blown meth and heroin addict, injecting meth and heroin and homeless on the streets,” Durham said. “That’s when I was at my rock bottom.”
Generations of historical trauma and increased exposure to violence make young Native Americans more vulnerable to the complicated, often contradictory clutches of the juvenile justice system, legal experts say. Once in the justice system, Native children become lost in a jurisdictional web, a dysfunctional state system and a federal system that has no proper place for them.
Isaac Palone, a member of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe, whose desert reservation straddles the Colorado River in southern Arizona and California, shares a similar story.
Palone was born on his grandmother’s living room floor to an alcoholic mother who had taken laxatives to conceal her pregnancy. After years of abuse in both his family home and in state care, he turned to drugs and alcohol.
“By 12, I was already involved with the cops,” Palone said.
He spent his last four months as a minor on probation for burglary. Soon after he turned 18, he broke the law again and, according to the Yuma Sun, was one of the city’s most wanted criminals. Tried for three burglaries and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, he was convicted and imprisoned for seven months.
Durham and Palone live nearly 200 miles from each other, but they share strikingly similar stories, and their experience is common to Native American youths, who are three times more likely to be imprisoned than their white peers, according to the Sentencing Project.
Native young people are “almost twice as likely to be petitioned to state court for skipping school, violating liquor laws, and engaging in other behaviors that are only illegal because of their age, (often known as status offenses),” according to a 2015 brief by the Tribal Law and Policy Institute. In 2017, 752 Native American youths lived in residential placement, which includes detention centers, group homes, and boot camps, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
Unlike other children, Native American children can be tried and sentenced in tribal, state, or federal justice systems. Once they make contact with the justice system, Native youths face unique complications that many don’t understand, said Addie Rolnick, associate professor of law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“It kind of makes many people throw up their hands and not want to touch the issue of Native youth,” Rolnick said.
These policies mean that the federal justice system affects Native children in unique ways, according to the Indian Law and Order Commission, created in 2010 to investigate what it called the broken justice system in Indian Country.
“Today’s American Indian and Alaska Native youth have inherited the legacy of centuries of eradication and assimilation-based policies directed at Indian people in the United States,” the commission reported.
Read more at Slate.com.