18 ideas for alternative sentencing in Indian Country

Traditional approaches to justice in Indian Country go back thousands of years and are far older than the statutes used in courts established in the European tradition.

Instead of relying almost exclusively on punishments, in the form of fines or incarceration, many tribal courts seek alternatives that will restore a community and the offender’s place within it.

Attorney Jess A. Lorona is a judge pro tem for the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community Tribal Court and Hualapai Tribal Court who joined The National Judicial College faculty in 2018.

In the course Essential Skills for Tribal Court Judges, he shares 18 examples* of alternative sentencing for tribal judges to consider:

Community Service Options

  1. Mow grass
  2. Pick up trash
  3. Maintain sports fields
  4. Cut firewood
  5. Hunt for elders/community members
  6. Remove graffiti
  7. Assign offender to a tribal department for work duty

Important: The court must ensure that the work is actually being done and the offender stays drug and alcohol free.

Culturally Specific Options – Elders’ Activities

  1. Language learning
  2. Research papers on tribal history (particularly effective for youth offenders)
  3. Traditional skills
  4. Mentoring
  5. Religious or cultural ceremony

Tough Love Options

  1. Public shaming
    1. At large cultural events such as Canoe Journey, Pow Wow, Feast Days
    2. Ad in newsletter or newspaper
  2. Social Expulsion/Ostracism (temporary or permanent)
  3. Banishment

Other Options

  1. Restitution
  2. Counseling
  3. Rehabilitation for drug/alcohol addiction (in-patient or out-patient)

Other Considerations

  • The tribe should let the court know what it feels is the best way to punish offenders and not leave it to the court to decide ad hoc
  • The Tribe can establish broad classes of offenders and types of traffic offenses that can be sentenced with a progressive range of alternatives:
    • Youth offenders committing minor offenses may be eligible for alternative sentencing
    • Education-type sentences
    • Progresses to non-incarceration-punishment-type sentences
    • Culminates with incarceration
  • Important: The court must be seen as a place that balances compassion and punishment.

*These are drawn from materials originally developed for the NJC by Judge Thor A. Hoyte.

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