Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Yurok Nation, led by Chief Justice Abby Abinanti, Built an Incarceration Alternative

The Yurok Nation Built an Incarceration Alternative

The Yurok Nation is the largest tribe in California, nestled along the Klamath River on the northern Pacific coast. As a sovereign nation, the Yurok Tribe manages its own court system and is able to apply its specific cultural lens to its functioning. Chief Justice Abby Abinanti’s court looks very different from a traditional state, county, or federal court. Judge Abby—as the community calls her—sees herself as a community member, not as a punisher. In her court, the person facing charges helps to decide how they should be held accountable. “We’re a culture that’s responsibility based,” she says. “You have a responsibility to and a responsibility for. Yes, there is a consequence for misbehavior, but they get to help decide how to address it because it was their mistake. That’s the whole thing about humans—we’re pretty mistake prone.” 
First, Judge Abby gives people the choice of going to trial or working with her to come to a mutually agreeable solution. The majority of people choose the latter option. Second, the individual helps decide how they should be held accountable. In a fishing violation, for example, someone may choose to pay a fine, or they may donate fish to a ceremony or the elders program. In child support cases, Judge Abby works with parents to come to a mutual agreement, which may include requiring the noncustodial parent to provide babysitting, rides to town, or wood or fish to the custodial parent. These noncash payment solutions are particularly valuable in a community with concentrated poverty: 41 percent of families with children and 53 percent of families headed by single mothers in the tribal area live below the federal poverty level. Judge Abby notes that off-reservation courts often garnish wages to resolve child support cases. According to the most recently available Census Bureau data, the average child support payment in the United States is $430 per month.
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Unlike the U.S. legal system, which Judge Abby calls “stranger justice,” the Yurok system prioritizes the agency of the individuals involved. “What I’m trying to do is say to someone, ‘You have exhibited behavior that is not okay. How are we going to help you get past that? Because we want you in [our] community.’” The tribal court sees a variety of cases—from environmental violations and domestic violence to child support and legal guardianship—but their jurisdiction is limited. The state has criminal jurisdiction over people residing on reservations, including tribal members. In most states, either the federal government or tribes have jurisdiction over their members. But California—along with Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin—is a Public Law 280 (PL 280) state. PL 280 was passed in 1953 without consulting tribes, and it gives state governments jurisdiction over all criminal matters on reservations. Tribal advocates argue that PL 280 violates sovereignty. The statute is often cited as a reason that tribes are denied funding for their own systems of justice. 
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The Yurok aren’t alone in revitalizing traditional forms of justice. In Southern California, Quechan tribal judge Claudette White pioneered the use of tribal values and customs in legal proceedings to reduce incarceration rates. She was highlighted in the 2017 documentary Tribal Justice, alongside Judge Abby. The Navajo Nation Peacemaking Program, which prioritizes nonpunitive dispute resolution and restorative justice, has been a parallel entity to the Western-style court for four decades. It is the largest tribal justice system in the world. These tribal communities demonstrate that we can implement alternatives to America’s violent and racist carceral system. And these alternatives are urgently needed. “Your way of doing things is not working,” Judge Abby says. “So you might want to look at how we managed to survive for a few thousand years.”  


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