Native incarceration rates are increasing (03/02)

Despite being the smallest segment of the population, Native Americans have the second largest state prison incarceration rate in the nation, according to a recent review of prison statistics. The review, conducted by the Foundation for National Progress, an umbrella organization for the magazine Mother Jones, found that 709 per 100,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives were incarcerated in state prisons in 2000. The rate was surpassed only by African-Americans, whose jail rate was a startling 1815 per 100,000.

Overall, Native Americans are 1 percent of the state prison population, a rate which hasn’t increased significantly nationwide over the past two decades. In federal facilities, Natives were 2 percent of the population.

But depending on the state, Native Americans disproportionately incarcerated. The phenomenon was most evident in the Plains. In Montana, for instance, 16 percent of prisoners were Native, compared to just 6 percent of the state population. In North Dakota, 19 percent of prisoners were American Indian and Alaska Native in a state where just 5 percent are Native.

Wyoming Indians made up 2 percent of the state population and 7 percent of the prison. The rate was comparable to Minnesota, where Indians were 1 percent of the general population and 7 percent of the prison, and Nebraska — 1 percent and 5 percent, respectively. South Dakota had the highest percentage in the Plains. Some 21 percent of state prisoners were Native, compared to just 8 percent of the state.

The only other state which had a large disparity was Alaska, which has the largest percentage of Native Americans in the entire country. A full 37 percent of the state prison population was Native in 2000, compared to 16 percent of the general population.

But other states with significant Indian populations did not necessarily experience the same phenomenon. The percentage of Natives in state prisons in California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arizona, for instance, were not extraordinarily high.

Yet across the board, Natives are being sent to state prisons at increasingly higher rates. In 1980, there were 145 per 100,000 Indians in California’s prisons, a rate which jumped to 767 per 100,000 in 2000. Such large jumps can be attributed, in part, to increases in the general American Indian and Alaska Native population.

The review was based on statistics provided by states, the Department of Justice, and the US Census Bureau. Research was conducted by the Justice Policy Institute, a program of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a non-profit organization whose mission is to reduce the use of incarceration as a solution to societal ills.

The Department of Justice last year released a study of jails in Indian Country, noting they were overcrowded and underfunded.