Washington A government report finds that reservation jails are often overcrowded and understaffed.
On many nights, the small jail on Arizona's White Mountain Apache reservation is packed to twice its 46-inmate capacity with people convicted or accused of domestic violence, drunken driving and other crimes.
Overcrowding is such a problem, that some offenders are being released early from jail -- on "minor alcohol-related incidents," for example -- and officers are making arrests only on "more violent, serious crimes," said Raymond Burnette, police chief for the 15,000-member tribe.
A Justice Department study released Sunday finds that most of the 69 jails on American Indian reservations are overcrowded and understaffed.
The jails serve 53 reservations in 18 states in the West and upper Midwest. Federal law gives some tribes authority over misdemeanor crimes, while felonies on reservations are prosecuted by federal or state systems. These tribes can incarcerate an offender for a maximum of one year.
A department study last year, the first comprehensive analysis of American Indians and crime, found that they are more than twice as likely to be victims of violent crimes than the general U.S. population.
The new report by the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, showed that American Indians also are imprisoned at higher rates than others. In June 1999, 19,679 American Indians were behind bars -- 1,621 in American Indian jails, 12,858 in state or federal prison, and 5,200 in county jails.
Overall, 797 American Indians per 100,000 population were incarcerated, compared with 682 people per 100,000 in the general population.
"A few tribes have made gains through Indian gaming, but most tribes continue to have a severe poverty problem on their reservations, and that carries with it social problems," said Mark Van Norman, who heads the department's Office of Tribal Justice.
The new report said the White Mountain Apache jail was one of nine tribal jails crammed to more than twice capacity in June 1999.
The most overcrowded jail was on North Dakota's Fort Berthold reservation, where 32 inmates were kept in a jail designed for nine. Three of the nine most overcrowded jails were on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico.
Officials at all but two of the 69 jails said they needed more staff, more training or both, the report said. Combined, the reservation lockups held slightly more than their capacity of 2,118 people on their most crowded day in June 1999, the report said.
Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming have Indian jails.
"We know there's a tremendous need" for more reservation jails, said Van Norman, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. "There has been tremendous population growth in Indian Country, and the existing facilities were mostly built in the late '60s and early '70s, so they're coming to the end of their useful life."
That is the case at Burnette's jail, which is close to 40 years old and was renovated and expanded a few years ago. Plumbing problems have caused cell toilets to back up and the security doors need to be replaced to ease the danger to guards or the risk of escapes, Burnette said.
The Justice Department has a $34 million program to help tribes build or renovate jails, and each year gets many more applications than there is money to fund them, Van Norman said.
The jail construction budget for the Bureau of Indian Affairs is about $5.5 million this year, and the House and Senate have approved bills that would grant the same amount for next year.
On the Net: Bureau of Justice Statistics: www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/