Problem-Solving Justice in Indian Country: The Navajo Nation Plans a Pilot Community Court

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Problem-Solving Justice in Indian Country: The Navajo Nation Plans a Pilot Community Court

Problem-Solving Justice in Indian Country: The Navajo Nation Plans a Pilot Community Court

Court Administrator Susie Martin and Chief Probation Officer Lucinda Yellowhair explain how the Navajo Nation's pilot community court will draw on their culture's traditional restorative justice principles.

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The following is a transcript.

ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi. I’m Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. The Navajo Nation covers 27,000 square miles and has more than a quarter million people and is in the process of developing a pilot community court for their Aneth District Court. Recently, a group of visitors from the Navajo Nation spent several days at the Red Hook Community Justice Center. I, along with Aaron Arnold who is the director of our Tribal Justice Exchange at the Center for Court Innovation, had an opportunity to sit down and talk with two of the visitors, Susie Martin who’s the court administrator for the Aneth district court, and Lucinda Yellowhair who’s the chief probation officer for the Navajo Nation. At the outset of our conversation, I asked Susie Martin to explain the kinds of cases the Aneth district court handles.

SUSIE MARTIN: We handle pretty much a wide variety of cases. It could be anything such as civil case where domestic violence is involved, could be temporary protection order; or it could be a name change, a simple name change case. We handle juvenile cases, as well as criminal cases, adult criminal cases—anywhere from battery to sexual assault, assault.

WOLF: So maybe since you’re here visiting the Red Hook Community Justice Center, you could explain what interest you have in developing a community court.

MARTIN: Well, how this all started was the chief justice of the Navajo nation with some other judges came out about a year ago I believe, maybe a little bit more than a year ago, and decided to look at their community court and they thought it was really interesting how their concept follows the actual traditional Navajo concept. They’re willing to give the person another chance, allowing the person to speak for themselves, instead of just hammering them down with “this is what you’ll do, you don’t have a voice in this” and just being adversarial, allowing the person to have a say in their rehabilitation. It’s more or less restorative justice, and that’s how the Navajo concept is. So that’s what they saw and they said, “well, why can’t we do it; this is part of our culture.” And that’s why she volunteered to have it as a pilot project for the Aneth District Court. That’s where we started from.

WOLF: And that’s Judge Irene Black, right, who’s also here on the tribal visit.

MARTIN: That’s correct.

WOLF: Maybe you could describe to me how you might integrate some of what you’ve seen here into what you’re doing.

LUCINDA YELLOWHAIR: The chief justice’s emphasis is to get out of the Western formalities of the legal system in our courts and the Navajo courts and into what he saw here he thought was very interesting. He’s trying to get away from the Western adversarial system and be able to bring our people in and say let’s try to use the restorative justice in this innovative court, you know, environment.

WOLF: So just so I understand the court system, even though you have these traditions that are very much like what you’re seeing here in Red Hook, the court as it’s practiced right now sort of evolved and adopted a lot of the Western traditions even though they’re not your traditions. And so, then, coming here and seeing this is sort of a way to—it’s sort of like a circle. You’re going back and saying, “Wait, wait, wait. We—this is in our traditions, as well. We can not only—we’re not just borrowing from Red Hook; we’re actually using Red Hook to get back to what we already know and what we do.”

YELLOWHAIR: And enhance it.

WOLF: And enhance it.

MARTIN: There’s a former justice, Raymond Austin, refers to it as “back to the future.”

YELLOWHAIR: Right.

WOLF: I see. Well, so I wonder maybe it’s too soon, but I just wonder after you’ve been here for two days, what kinds of takeaways you’re getting. What are you seeing that you like and you think you might be able to adapt? And perhaps you’re seeing some things you don’t—you don’t think would fit.

MARTIN: We’re so used to the adversarial system where everything is procedural. Everything is we have to do it in a certain way and it has to be done according to a schedule. But we need to relax. We need to realize that in order for people to feel comfortable, you have to allow them to be themselves and so that they can express themselves freely, but at the same time there needs to be some control. So we have to find that balance I think. Right now we’re too set in this adversarial system where we feel like it’s got to be procedure; it’s got to be authoritative; and we have to bring the hammer down. That’s what we’re believing right now, and we need to come out of that mode.

YELLOWHAIR: And I think by coming here and seeing the other side of that, we were going to take back the you know observation that we saw and say, you know, this could work like Susie said. We’re going to be able to take it back and see if we can balance that, talk to chief and say, “Okay, now chief, this is what’s going to happen and this is what we saw. Are you ready for that?” One of the other things that I’ve noticed is the bar right here in front, you know, right in front of the gallery. Okay. And in the other court, formal court setting, it’s closed out. There is a gate, you know, a half door.

WOLF: Right.

YELLOWHAIR: This, there’s none. And I think chief would like this idea because right now our chief justice does not wear a robe when he’s on the bench. He doesn’t believe that. And so, his bench is lower and he doesn’t wear a robe.

MARTIN: And just to add to that, one of the newer courts that was built, Delcon Court, which is in Arizona, they don’t have a bench there at all. It’s just an open—it’s shaped in a hogon style. And the judge is sitting on the same level as the defendants, and they’re in an open setting. So they’re more or less moving away from the concept of the adversarial system, the formal, the judge sitting higher and the defendant is down here. They can’t speak unless they speak through their attorneys. We’re trying to move away from that.

WOLF: I wonder, you know, here there’s sort of this balance between sort of breaking with tradition by linking defendants to services and trying to, you know, an emphasis on healing or trying to restore them. But there’s still the use of court as an authority, for instance through monitoring. I wonder if any of that resonates with you as well, where you sort of have both, to have authority but you also have an emphasis on healing.

YELLOWHAIR: Yes. I think now I see why—there’s two new courts that are going up. And in the building planning of these two buildings, I was thinking about it earlier this morning as, you know, when the clinical portion of the court is right across the hallway from the courtroom.

WOLF: Yeah. Here in Red Hook.

YELLOWHAIR: Right. And I remember thinking back, the new buildings, the schematics, the design of the new building does have that setting where the social workers and the clinical physicians that are going to be coming aboard have an office right next to the courtrooms. And I thought, okay, somebody was thinking ahead. And I’m thinking, okay, puzzles are actually fitting. And then I thought, oh my God, is it possible that one day we’ll be able to just walk across the hallway and get an assessment within an hour rather than a month and a half that we actually—

WOLF: It takes a month and a half?

YELLOWHAIR: Realistically, today, it takes a month and a half.

WOLF:  And is that because of the distance I heard referenced to before or just a resource issue?

YELLOWHAIR: The lack of resources issue and the distances, yes.

WOLF: Both.

YELLOWHAIR: Yes.

WOLF: Wow.

YELLOWHAIR: And so, maybe this whole concept of innovative court system is actually—it’s coming. We just didn’t realize it.

MARTIN: Of course, we’re going to be a little bit different because we don’t have the resources readily available. But we have to find ways to make this happen. And one unique program I think we have is peacemaking, which Red Hook doesn’t have. But we can use that; that’s a resource. And we have to find our own resources to try and fit into this program. And that’s what we need to do, and those are the ideas we’re receiving from this visit we had.

YELLOWHAIR: Not only the peacemaking but the case manager officers for juveniles that are in the facility right now. We have case managers and the grant—it’s funded under a grant right now, but chief justice would like for it, for the program to eventually come on board to the court system. And they call it nahamdebahasla; that means kind of taking a whole—the whole thing. But these are—this is regarding kids that are in custody right now.

WOLF: And I just think it’s very exciting to hear you talk about it. And it just sounds like an exciting time. And I just wonder if Aaron who’s familiar with Red Hook and has visited you and seen things, I wonder what observations you have about potential for community court concepts to work in the Navajo Nation.

AARON ARNOLD: Well, I certainly couldn’t say it any better than Susie and Cindy have already said it. But the one thing that I have taken away from this year and a half long learning experience, this sharing experience, is that there are aspects of the Navajo court system that are light years ahead of where we are. They have resources; they have history; they have traditions; they have foundations that we don’t have. In some ways they’re way ahead of where we are in the state court systems. And in other ways, the state court systems, you know, have things that we learned to our work that we can share. And listening to these two wise women speak now, it really is great for me to hear because I think we’re all on the same page realizing that this tribal community and tribal communities in general have so much foundation, history, and tradition that they can use and they already are using. And just by adding those little pieces that the state court system has honed and has learned through the problem-solving court movement is a way to kind of blend tradition and formality. It’s a way to blend the adversarial process with the traditional process in a way to bring together the best of both worlds to strengthen everyone’s court system. So it’s terrific for me to hear. And the one thing I wanted to ask Susie and Cindy is, you know, we’ve talked a little bit about how the Bureau of Justice Assistance is really thrilled that Chief Justice Yazzi approached us and we had this ongoing collaboration over the last year and a half. And I know that when we travel to conferences and with other tribal communities, other tribal communities are starting to get wind of this and they’re getting excited to see how it turns out. And I’m wondering how it makes you both feel or how you both react to know that there are people who are really excited about this collaboration or anxious to see how it turns out.

YELLOWHAIR: Well, what’s happening and what has unfolded here before us, as you remember, Aaron, when you came out the last time you were out there, Susie and I sat there and looked at each other and we’re like, “Oh my God, this is something we’ve already been doing.” You know, these are things that we have already used and techniques we’ve been using over the years. And I remember back then being in probation, helping people is very difficult, and especially when you acknowledge them or when they acknowledge you through their kinship. Like a little boy that said I’m your dad, or a little child that says, “You’re my mom.” I don’t have a mom and you become their mother. And back then we used to say wow, what are the possibilities of the things we’re doing now? What if it unfolds one day and somebody actually sees it, and we see it happening. Well, it’s happening; it’s happening. It’s something that was just a dream one time ago, something that we just thought who is out there that would pick up the concept that we’re using; who would it be to do that. And it’s happening today. And I think that’s what’s so rewarding. We just feel like everything you worked for, everything you said, pleading with your clients—children and adults, grandfathers of plus-70 years old that I used to say to them, “What are you doing here, grandpa? You’re supposed to be teaching me. Why are you here, me scolding you?” You know, and then it’s here; it’s reality now. And when we get back, we’re going to say, “Wow, so, long years of work, hard work, that has finally unfolded and somebody finally said, ‘Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t we put this into reality?’” And I hope someday when we get it back to the Nation, we will be able to sit there when we’re 80 years old in our rocking chair and say, yeah, we took part in that and be very proud of ourselves and knowing that we had a hand in it.

ARNOLD: It’s such an honor for us to be involved in this whole thing. We’re happy that we can do this all together and looking forward to see where it takes us.

WOLF: I want to thank you so much for taking the time to share with me and, you know, people who visit our website. I’ve been speaking with Lucinda Yellowhair who’s the Chief Probation Officer of the Navajo Nation; and Susie Martin, the court administrator of the Aneth District Court, Navajo Nation; and Aaron Arnold who is the director of the Tribal Justice Exchange of the Center for Court Innovation. And I’m Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Thanks for listening.

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