Tribal Youth Justice

Models of Youth/Teen/Student/Peer Court and Peer Jury Diversion Programs

Global Youth Justice has provided Training and Technical Assistance to more than fifty (50) Native American, Alaskan Native, and Indigenous Tribes, Villages, Councils and Communities.  Dozens of Youth/Teen/Student/Peer Court and Peer Jury Diversion Programs exist on Tribal Lands, in addition to other partnerships between Tribes and non-native entities, such as towns, cities, and villages, where Tribal Youth participate in these Diversion Programs not based on Tribal Lands.


Many of the earliest know Youth/Teen/Student/Peer Court and Peer Jury Diversion Programs in the United States of America were based on Tribal Justice Systems, which stressed restorative justice principles in Talking Circles, Peacemaking Circles, and Healing Circles.

Indigenous justice systems existed before European contact, and many remain intact.  Some tribes have replaced their indigenous systems with those based on American jurisprudence and structure.  Still others have developed hybrid systems that blend indigenous and American laws and approaches to address youth crime and delinquency problems.  As a result, contemporary tribal justice systems differ culturally, philosophically, and structurally from the American juvenile justice system and with each other.  The structure of tribal governments generally determines the construct of problem solving forums among the Indian nations.

For many Tribes, law is a way of life taught through oral traditional processes used to pass on the knowledge, skills, and abilities to maintain traditional life ways.  Indian people consider youth to be their greatest resource who need nurturing and rearing in a loving fashion by all community members, and traditional law-ways support cultivating the strength and wisdom of young people.

Tribes are using justice process and approaches found in their own culture or that of other indigenous groups.  For example, most pueblos in the Southwest continue to rely on their traditional officials (currently identified by Spanish references: fiscales and mayordomos) to mediate cases involving children and youth.

These traditional officials assist with discipline by providing support to the family and relatives of the youth.  Often extended family members accompany youth and families to hearings and engage in the problem solving and resolution process.  While youth are involved, much of the process is led by adults whose primary purposes are to guide discussions that inform decision-making and help the young person to take responsibility for his or her wrongdoing through apology and agreeing to implement the restorative measures identified.  Depending on the level of tribal intervention, restorative measures may become part of a court order.


The Navajo Nation’s wide use of peacemaking in all types of cases provides tribes with an indigenous model to replicate in their communities to handle youth and family cases.  In particular, the Navajo Nation has a Peacemaking Program specifically to handle juvenile status offenses and delinquency matters.  The Navajo peacemaking system allows for varying degree of involvement with its family court system. Peacemakers are generally Navajo elders or respected community members who mediate cases and help youth and other participants reach resolutions.

Other tribes such as the Chippewa tribes in Michigan have developed peacemaking systems in their communities to handle truancy and other types of minor offenses including juvenile delinquency. The Michigan models include partnerships among youth, adults and elders to work together to address youth wrongdoing and to develop plans for the youth to follow.

There are many contemporary challenges to incorporating tribal culture philosophies, values, and approaches into programs for youth, including youth courts.  However, there are many ways for tribes to infuse youth programs with culture based approaches and tribal philosophy.   Youth courts in American Indian and Alaskan Native (AI/AN) communities range from those that are tribal court annexed to those managed by other tribal programs or community organizations.

Tribal Youth Justice Expanding

Three main reasons for the emergence of youth/teen/student/peer court and peer jury diversion programs in Tribal communities include the need for: (1) alternatives to handle status offenses such as truancy and school-based incidences; (2) alternatives to handle minor offenses such as underage drinking, non-violent crimes, and traffic violations; and (3) court options not otherwise available in some AI/AN communities to address minor youth crimes.

Youth/Teen/Student/Peer Court and Peer Jury Diversion Programs provide the following benefits and/or advantages for AI/AN youth: (1) Appropriate inclusion of youth in tribal government processes increases youth knowledge of AI/AN justice systems; (2) Education and awareness help youth see that they can have positive roles within the court system, instead of just negative ones; (3) Youth receive opportunities for leadership roles in the justice system and their tribal government or community;(4) Youth discover what careers are available within the justice system; and (5) Youth/Teen/Student/Peer Court and Peer Jury Diversion Programs provide meaningful ways to include youth in solving problems encountered by their peers.

Tribal Youth Justice Outcomes

Positive partnerships occur among youth, adults, elders, and tribal leaders in addressing AI/AN youth crime and delinquency to include; (1) Youth/Teen/Student/Peer Court and Peer Jury Diversion Programs restore community faith in youth by providing a mechanism for youth to show that they can do positive things for themselves, elders, and the community as a whole; (2) Youth are encouraged to learn from elders while they are helping them, and they feel more connected with them; (3) Youth learn traditional skills through culture-based community service; and (4) Youth receive hope for the future, always knowing they are an integral part of a community that strives to keep them connected.

Interest in school increases as a result of being involved with Youth/Teen/Student/Peer Court and Peer Jury Diversion Programs.  Examples include; (1) Youth learn how to deal with problems and conflicts in an appropriate way, especially in programs based on peacemaking principles; (2) One of the reasons for bringing youth into peacemaking is to have adults act as role models to show youth appropriate ways to act and resolve issues and/or problems; (3) Youth/Teen/Student/Peer Court and Peer Jury Diversion Programs strengthen relationships among tribes and agencies such as social services, probation, and schools; (4) Youth/Teen/Student/Peer Court and Peer Jury Diversion Programs increase opportunities for partnerships among tribal systems and programs to address shared responsibilities aimed at helping youth succeed; (5) Youth/Teen/Student/Peer Court and Peer Jury Diversion Programs are early intervention programs that identify and address the underlying issues that bring youth to court.

Excellent Publication

“Building Culturally Relevant Youth/Teen/Student/Peer Court Diversion Programs in Tribal Communities”

See Pages 65-91

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