Tim Giago: South Dakota justice system destroying young Natives
There are disparities in the system of justice in South Dakota that can only be found in other states with large Native American populations.
The incarceration ratio for Native Americans in South Dakota is far out of proportion with the total state population. The main prisons in the state are top heavy with Native Americans. The prison in Sioux Falls reportedly houses a population that is 33 percent Native American. Since the total state population of Indians is about 10 percent, the number of Native Americans that are incarcerated should raise some concerns within the judiciary in this state. It does not.
Native Americans are faced with a system of justice that is usually not applicable to South Dakota's white citizens. Crimes committed on the state's nine Indian reservations are considered to be federal crimes and sentencing for the crimes is set by federal guidelines with little freedom allowed to the judges to make individual assessments.
But to South Dakota's Native Americans it really doesn't matter whether they are tried in city, county, state or federal court; it just seems that the sentences they receive are much more severe than those imposed on the white population.
As a newspaper editor I get letters all of the time from Indians who are incarcerated and it surprises me that most of these letters are not written to claim innocence. Most admit their guilt, but wonder at the severity of their sentence. They sit side-by-side with white inmates who committed the exact crime and are serving sentences far less drastic.
So many young Native American men and women are marked for life by a justice system that seems to have singled them out for punishment they perceive to be far and above that meted out to non-Indians. For many the very course of their lives is altered and their hopes and dreams shattered almost beyond repair.
It seems that in my lifetime I have seen study after study addressing the disparity in justice in South Dakota and all of those studies to date have been for naught. The unequal system of justice goes on and on without pause.
It didn't always work that way.
Many years ago a crime was committed by several teenage Indians. They had been drinking beer and when the beer ran out they went looking for more. One of them had the bright idea of going to a beer warehouse, breaking in, and loading up with more beer. And so they did. Again, showing how ignorant teenagers can be, especially when under the influence of alcohol, one of the young ladies involved took the padlock they had cut from the entrance door home as a souvenir.
Of course the police tracked them down and lo and behold they discovered the souvenir padlock. Their day in court arrived and using the system of justice meted out in today's court system, they would have all been sentenced to prison thereby crushing their ambitions maybe for a lifetime.
I knew everyone of these young people and if I had run into them earlier that day I probably would have been right in the middle of this mess with them.
The judge did something that judges used to do back then. He looked and listened and realized that these weren't really bad kids nor were they criminals. He sentenced them all to probation with a stern warning. "If I ever see any of you in my court again you will wish that you had never been born," the judge said.
It put the fear of God into those youngsters. Two of the young ladies involved in the warehouse theft went on to finish college and return to the Pine Ridge Reservation as teachers. One of the young men went on to get a law degree. The other went on to become a journeyman electrician who helped build many of the new homes in Rapid City. They had been give a chance and they took it.
Today too many young Native Americans find themselves in jail or prison. They have been taken from society for minor crimes and find themselves behind bars with hardened criminals. They have lost their rights as citizens to vote or to run for office. In other words, they have been placed outside of the mainstream. Many of these crimes are centered around traffic violations. They did not commit a major crime but were caught doing something stupid behind a steering wheel.
The entire system of justice in South Dakota needs to be re-examined. Justice for Indians and whites needs parity. If it takes a special course in sensitivity training for every judge in this state, so be it.
The justice system in South Dakota and in other states with large Native populations must stop destroying the lives of young Native Americans.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News.