Tribal Court Convictions and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines: Respect for Tribal Courts and Tribal People in Federal Sentencing
55 Pages Posted: 26 Oct 2011 Last revised: 25 May 2013
This article critiques a proposal to include tribal court criminal convictions and sentences in the federal sentencing scheme. The proposal, as articulated by Kevin Washburn, calls for an amendment to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines to count tribal court convictions in calculating an Indian defendant’s criminal history score to determine a federal prison sentence. Currently, tribal court convictions are not directly counted in criminal history, but may be used to support an “upward departure” to increase the Native defendant’s overall federal sentence.
Washburn’s proposal seeks to gain “respect” for tribal courts, based upon a premise that tribal convictions must be afforded the same weight and treatment as federal and state criminal convictions under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. This Article explores the idea of respect for tribal courts and convictions in the context of their history and connection to tribal peoples and communities. Ultimately, this Article concludes that respectful treatment would not tolerate placing a tribal defendant in such a powerless position within the federal sentencing hierarchy.
A proposal that would negatively impact only Native American defendants in a foreign justice system in the name of respect warrants critical review. As an Assistant Federal Public Defender, I had the opportunity to view the application of federal criminal laws from the front and the back end of the criminal justice system, from trial to post-conviction. As a Native woman, I have seen the impact of crime, justice, and federal sentencing on tribal people, families, and whole communities.
It is from this perspective that I focus the lens of respect on the work of tribal courts and criminal justice in Indian Country, and ultimately oppose any amendment in federal sentencing to count tribal court convictions to increase federal sentences for Native criminal defendants. A review of the historical diminishment of tribal authority over crime and punishment on the reservation, as well as the disparate impact of crime and punishment on Native peoples, leads to a rejection of counting tribal court convictions in federal sentencing. This Article proposes an alternative view that both respects Native American individuals caught in the criminal justice system and elevates tribal sovereignty.
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