Tribal/Native American Youth

Navajo_blanket - wikicommonAmerican Indian and Alaskan Native (AI/AN) youth face unique challenges when they come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Unlike the majority of youth charged with delinquency offenses and prosecuted in state courts, AI/AN youth may be prosecuted in three distinct justice systems: federal, state, or tribal, and are subject to transfer to adult court within any of these systems.

All youth in federal and state courtsincluding American Indian and Alaskan Native youth—are entitled to due process protections under the Fifth Amendment, including the due process right to counsel afforded by In re Gault. However, under the well-settled principles of tribal sovereignty, the constitutional rights and due process protections that afford indigent defendants a right to counsel in the United States do not apply to American Indian and Alaskan Native youth prosecuted in tribal courts.

Juvenile defenders face distinct challenges and must consider unique strategies and approaches to provide culturally competent, effective, ethical, and high quality representation to AI/AN youth. Defenders play a vital role in ensuring AI/AN youth who enter the juvenile justice system are treated fairly and protected from further harm within the system, or abuses of power by judges, prosecutors, probation officers, detention staff, and other system players. Defenders must work to reduce disparities, connect resources, locate services and alternatives to incarceration, and ensure meaningful access to counsel for AI/AN youth.

For American Indian and Alaskan Native youth, having counsel who recognizes the rich heritage of native communities and the youth’s unique tribal identity, who will work with the youth to fashion detention alternatives or disposition plans that reflect the strength of the youth’s culture and customs can serve to empower the youth and create positive change in the youth’s life. Defense counsel will also serve to educate the court and other system players about creative alternatives that are available for youth within their tribal nation.


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