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Statement by Administrator Robert L. Listenbee of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on “Juvenile Justice in Indian Country: Challenges and Promising Strategies”


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Chairman John Barrasso.  And thank you, Vice-Chairman Jon Tester and distinguished members of the committee.  I’m grateful for this opportunity to discuss with you the challenges surrounding juvenile justice in Indian country and the steps we are taking at the Department of Justice to improve our response to tribal youth.  As Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention within the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs, I have the privilege of overseeing a host of programs designed to support tribes as they serve their youngest members.  I believe – and I know each of you believes – that tribal youth represent the link between a proud heritage and a promising future for all our Indian nations.

My office is working diligently to support native youth, many of whom have faced terrible hardships in their young lives.  The work we’re doing on their behalf fits squarely within the priorities I’ve set for my office: making our nation’s juvenile justice system more evidence-based and developmentally-informed, improving compliance with the core requirements of our statutory mission and reducing out-of-home placement.  Operating in accordance with these goals, I believe we can narrow the front door to the juvenile justice system and, at the same time, make our juvenile justice agencies more responsive to the needs of our young people.

In my view, juvenile justice reform is an urgent matter, and nowhere is the issue more pressing than in Indian country.  Cases involving native youth are complicated by a host of challenges, including a bewildering jurisdictional patchwork, an absence of tribal juvenile codes to guide justice professionals and a failure of state and federal systems to account for cultural needs.  High rates of trauma in Indian country make matters even worse.  The Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence found that among native children who enter the juvenile justice system, the prevalence of trauma symptoms due to violence exposure is estimated at 73 to 95 percent.

The needs are great and I’m proud that my office and my partners throughout the Office of Justice Programs and the Department of Justice, are stepping up to try to meet these challenges.  I describe these initiatives more fully in my written statement, and will note them briefly now.

First, in an effort to mitigate the impact of violence on youth, we are funding demonstration programs at the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and the Chippewa Cree Tribe in Montana that use traditional practices to enhance resilience in children exposed to trauma.

Second, we are working to prevent tribal youth from entering the juvenile justice system.  One of the goals of our Mentoring Opportunities for Youth Initiative is to connect substantially more native young people to positive adult influences, and our Tribal Youth Program supports skills development, education and traditional methods like talking circles to help at-risk youth.

Third, we are providing greater access to culturally-based diversion alternatives.  The five Tribal Healing to Wellness Courts we fund are using drug court principles to complement traditional approaches to counter underage drinking.  And through a public-private partnership with the Anne E. Casey Foundation, we’ve launched a pilot tribal site as part of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.

Fourth, we’re collaborating with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to update the Model Indian Juvenile Code.  The code specifically addresses issues affecting native youth arrested for alcohol and drug-related offenses and it reflects federal legislative updates and the latest developments in the field of juvenile justice.

Finally, we are widening tribal access to our resources.  The Department of Justice’s Coordinated Tribal Assistance Solicitation, which includes the Tribal Youth Program, offers tribes a more streamlined approach to applying for grants.  Over the last five years, the Department has awarded more than 1,100 grants totaling almost $530 million under this program.  And the President’s budget request for fiscal year 2016 includes a seven percent set-aside from Office of Justice Programs discretionary funds for tribal justice assistance grants.  The set-aside would provide a flexible source of tribally-specific funding that they could use to identify and address their most important criminal and juvenile justice priorities.

Mr. Chairman, I have met many young people in my travels to Indian country.  On July 9, I met even more when, along with Senator Heitkamp and Mr. Cruzan, I had the privilege of participating in the White House’s inaugural Tribal Youth Gathering.  These young people have amazed and inspired me by their courage and by their faith in the future.  Many have traveled a hard road and sometimes that road has led them to trouble.  But I believe, with few exceptions, that they have much to offer – to their families, to their communities, and to this nation.  I’m committed to doing my part to help them realize their promise.  I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today and I am prepared to answer any questions you may have.


Updated July 15, 2015