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Federal Sentencing Study: Not Enough Data To Determine Disparities For Native Defendants

Photo Courtesy of Jeffrey Viken

In the United States, there are federal laws, and there are state laws. And it's state law that prohibits felony acts such as murder, rape, burglary, aggravated assault, and larceny.

But the state does not have jurisdiction in Indian Country. And so if a tribal member on a reservation commits a major crime, he or she is prosecuted by the federal government.

It's a unique situation. Indigenous people, members of tribes, are commonly tried in federal court for state crimes, while other racial or ethnic groups are not.

This situation exists because under treaty, tribes are sovereign and have a nation-to-nation relationship with the United States.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has just completed a study to determine if felons sentenced in federal court face harsher sentences than they would if their cases had been handled in state court.

Federal Judge Jeffrey Viken headed up the subcommittee looking at that issue. He reported the findings to the sentencing commission at a hearing in Washington, D.C., on July 21.

What that subcommittee discovered is that there's not enough data collected by state and federal agencies to make that comparison and come to a conclusion.

But federal judges say anecdotal information, years of judicial experience, and tribal perceptions indicate the federal system lands Native defendants in prison for much longer sentences.

To watch the entire Tribal Issues Advisory Group hearing before the U.S. Sentencing Commission on July 21, 2016, click here:


To read the TIAG report to the sentencing commission, click here: