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Native American Incarceration Statistics

A recent study published on Tuesday has revealed the startling reality that, in America, Native Americans can be incarcerated at up to seven times the rate of Caucasian people. 

The MacArthur Foundation released a report entitled “Over-incarceration of Native Americans: Roots, Inequities, and Solutions” which shines an illuminating light on the atrocious racial and ethnic disparities of incarceration in our country. The report is a welcome move towards addressing and critically examining the issue of over-incarceration of Native people. 

Dr. Ciara Hansen (Shawnee/Cherokee), author of the report, stated, “Overincarceration of Indigenous people is tightly linked to colonial violence, and this has been perpetuated by policies over the years in Indian Country. Paternalistic solutions, when applied to Native communities, often neglect the crucial component of gaining an understanding of the problem from the community’s point of view. Nevertheless, this report can be used as a starting point for conversation and sharing knowledge.” 

The press release related to the report drew attention to multiple crucial discoveries, including: 

  • The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 45 percent of those held in tribal jails were awaiting trial – an increase from 1999 – and that average length of stay had doubled since 2002. 
  • According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report from 2020, tribal jail incarceration rates were on the rise, with a 60 percent rise since 2000. However, the latest report from the authorities suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a drastic decline in incarceration within tribal jails. 
  • In the past two decades, the number of jails located in Indian Country has experienced a 25% surge, leading to a higher population of individuals charged with minor offenses being held for extended periods. 

The report notes a number of tribes taking strides in providing progressive criminal justice systems, such as the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Michigan, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma, and the Kanaitze Indian Tribe in Alaska. The latter, for instance, has a comprehensive reintegration program – ranging from financial support to career advice and culturally suitable programming – that starts even prior to release and continues with legal counseling. 

Examining the Disproportionate Incarceration Rates of Native Americans  

Native Americans are one of the most incarcerated demographics in the United States, with an incarceration rate that is 38% higher than their national population percentage. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Native Americans account for just 1.7% of the total US population, but they make up 2.3% of the total US prison population.  

While Native Americans are incarcerated at a disproportionately high rate, they are also significantly underrepresented in sentencing compared to other ethnicities and races for similar crimes. For example, according to the Sentencing Project’s 2018 report on Native American incarceration, Native Americans were sentenced to an average of 35 months in prison for drug crimes, while non-Native Americans only received an average sentence of 21 months. This disparity in sentencing highlights the need for more equitable and just treatment of Native Americans by the criminal justice system.  

Particularly concerning is the fact that Native American women experience incarceration rates that are double that of non-Native women, making them one of the most incarcerated demographics in the nation.  

Impact of Disproportionate Incarceration on Native American Communities  

The impact of disproportionate incarceration on Native American communities is far-reaching and long-lasting. Studies show that those who have been incarcerated are more likely to experience poverty, poor health outcomes, alcoholism, drug abuse, and difficulty finding stable employment. Furthermore, incarceration of Native Americans can lead to a breakdown in family structures and a disruption in traditional cultural practices and identity. This can also lead to Native American drug abuse and alcoholism, which perpetuates the negative cycle of despair. 

In addition, the issue of disproportionate incarceration is magnified by historical injustices such as the displacement of Native Americans from their ancestral lands, the continued marginalization of Native American communities and cultures, and the lack of access to resources for educational enrichment and economic development.  


Native Americans are routinely subjected to unjustly high incarceration rates, with Native American women facing double the rate of non-Native women. This is an unacceptable reality that must be addressed if we are to create a more equitable justice system. It is essential that we continue to raise awareness about this issue and work towards meaningful solutions that can help reduce the disproportionately high incarceration rates for Native Americans. Only then will we be able to create a criminal justice system that treats everyone fairly and equitably. 

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