In the Spotlight

News & Features

The rural justice system and Native Americans
By Dan Gunderson
Minnesota Public Radio
November, 2001
Click for audio RealAudio

An overview | Accountability in the justice system | American Indians and the rural justice system | The new disparities | Driving while black

Most of the attention to racial profiling and racial disparities in the justice system is focused on the Twin Cities. But disparities in the justice system are also evident in rural counties with large minority populations. In Beltrami County, about 20 percent of the population is American Indian, but nearly half of those arrested and jailed are Indian. This obvious disparity raises questions about the criminal justice system and social problems confronting the Indian population. But there are no easy answers.

Nobody wants to come right out and say, 'Well, the reason it's disproportionate is because they're committing more crimes.' That's not a very popular thing to say. And I wouldn't say it unless I brought up a lot of other things, those contributing causes," says Beltrami County Sheriff Keith Winger.
(MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson)

It's Monday morning court in Beltrami County District Court. Most of the orange-suited jail inmates - here for arraignment on various charges - are American Indian.

That's typical in this northern Minnesota courtroom. The court keeps no race-based statistics, but spot checks over six months found more than half of those appearing in Beltrami County court are American Indians.

American Indians are likely to be represented by public defenders like Kristine Kolar. "In my practice as a public defender representing Native American clients in Beltrami County, I believe they are treated more severely, or more harshly than a white client who can pay his lawyer," she says.

Kolar is chief public defender for the 9th Judicial District. She claims racial bias was evident in the courtroom on this day. Two people appeared before the same judge on drunk driving charges. The white man was released without bail, but the prosecutor asked for $1,000 bail for the American Indian man.

Kolar pointed out the disparity and convinced the judge to change his mind and release the Indian man without bail. She says had someone not challenged the judge, the Indian man would be sitting in jail awaiting a court date.

"By the time the court date came up, the Native American man could have lost his job, could have had family implications, and have lost his liberty. Whereas the white man, if that situation had played out like it could have, would not have suffered any of those consequences. I don't see any justice in that," she says.

Kolar says this is typical of "a different standard for American Indians." She believes her Indian clients often receive harsher sentences than their white neighbors.

Any statistical analysis to support or discount her allegation is extremely difficult because the courts keep no comparative data.

But Beltrami County Attorney Tim Favor bristles at the suggestion that his office treats American Indians differently. Favor, a slim, grey-haired man with a deliberative air, has been county attorney since 1989. He says he's made clear to his staff that race is not to be a factor in prosecutorial decisions.

"Native Americans are imprisoned at 12 times the rate of whites. "

- Council on Crime and Justice, 2000
Favor says if there is racial bias, it's incumbent on victims to challenge the system. "File a motion, we'll go to court, we'll litigate it, (and) the judge will make a decision. If the judge says, 'Cops, you screwed up, prosecutor you screwed up,' I accept that. But if someone says I'm being treated this way because of my race, I can't just say, 'Well, OK then fine, dismiss the case,'" says Favor.

Favor says he can only recall one race-based complaint being filed with his office. He acknowledges racial bias exists. But he says the bias is usually subtle and difficult to identify. Favor says he wonders if claims of bias are often more perception than reality.

The perception of judicial bias is most often based on contact with law enforcement.

American Indians in Beltrami County complain about "dreamcatcher stops." Police make a traffic stop because a dreamcatcher, hanging from the rearview mirror, blocks the driver's vision and violates state law.

No one can say whether American Indians are more likely to be stopped for such violations. Again, no data is kept to support or disprove the allegations.

But there is no dispute about the raw numbers of Indians in the justice system. Everyone agrees American Indians are far more likely to be arrested and jailed than their white neighbors in Beltrami County.

But Beltrami County Sheriff Keith Winger says racial profiling is not the reason. "Because it happens in places like Los Angeles and Minneapolis, then in some cases there's an assumption it happens in Beltrami County, too," Winger says. "I've been sheriff three years. I've had complaints against officers. I have not had one complaint against an officer based on race."

Sheriff Winger is a soft-spoken man who grew up in Beltrami County. He says to conclude racial profiling is the reason a disproportionate number of American Indians are arrested is simplistic.

"Nobody wants to come right out and say, 'Well, the reason it's disproportionate is because they're committing more crimes.' That's not a very popular thing to say. And I wouldn't say it unless I brought up a lot of other things, those contributing causes," he says.

The sheriff says poverty, alcohol and despair are contributing social problems that won't be solved by calling his officers racist.

The flat denial of racial profiling by law enforcement causes Joe Day to shake his head in frustration. Day heads the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. His office is in Bemidji.

Beltrami County Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks , an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band, says he doesn't believe racial profiling is widespread, instead he thinks economic injustice is even more pervasive in law enforcement.
(MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson)

Day contends he's witnessed racial profiling. He says at a community event, a sheriff's deputy admitted he was running computer checks only on tribal license plates.

Day says the issue is a complex mix of white racism and Indian social problems. He says American Indians feel they have been mistreated by the system for so long, frustration often leads to confrontations when Indians encounter law enforcement. He says those conflicts only deepen the racial divisions.

"The analogy is you kick the dog so long it's going to turn around and bite you, and that's where I see this relationship today," Day says.

Law enforcement officials say they are reaching out to minorities. The sheriff says he participates in the Bemidji race-relations committee. But he says if Indians don't challenge perceived injustice, wrongs cannot be righted.

Joe Day says that's like telling a crime victim that it's their fault that they were assaulted. He says many American Indians have simply given up on the judicial system. "The philosophy from the American Indian perspective is why go up and file a complaint? It's not going to go anywhere anyway. It's going to get shoved under the rug and nothing will improve if we do complain. And , as matter of fact, there might be some retribution," Days says.

Day says obviously disproportionate number of American Indians in the justice system in Beltrami county should be considered a crisis. Instead, he says, most white people are simply indifferent to the plight of Indian people.

Some local leaders are aware of the problem. Beltrami County Board Chairman Jim Heltzer says he was shocked at the number of American Indians in the county jail. He's pushing an initiative to significantly increase county spending for chemical dependency treatment.

County Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks wants a complete examination of the judicial system. Fairbanks grew up on the Red Lake reservation. After a stint in the Army, he was a Minnesota state trooper for many years.

Fairbanks is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band and works for the tribal government. He says he doesn't believe racial profiling is widespread, instead he thinks economic injustice is even more pervasive in law enforcement.

"They get a uniform and a badge and they love that power," he says. "The easiest way to use it or get a promotion is make an arrest. And what's easier than to make an arrest of a person that's economically deprived? They can't pay the fine, they cannot get an attorney to fight a case even if there's injustice. I'm not saying they'd pick on Indians, I'm saying they pick on people that are down and out."

Fairbanks says it's time to get beyond the issue of racial profiling and attack the poverty, addiction, and despair that lead so many American Indians into the justice system.

But other American Indians say addressing social problems is not enough. They say as long as there's racial bias, American Indians in Beltrami County will continue to be arrested, jailed, and in court far more often than their white neighbors.