By Derrick Belgarde, Gabe Galanda & Winona Stevens / For The Herald
The Washingtonstate Legislature has an opportunity to move beyond performative Tribal land acknowledgments and renew hundreds of Indigenous lives. House Bill 1324 would end automatic sentence enhancements for adults who fell down as adolescents. But for that reform to matter — for Indigenous life to matter — it must be both forward and backward looking.
Citing the intergenerational historic trauma suffered by all Indigenous persons in our state, eight Tribal governments and Indigenous social justice organizations have urged the Legislature to pass HB 1324.
We know that youth are different from adults; it’s why we have two separate state systems of “justice” in the first place. Because a child’s brain is not fully developed, and won’t be until they are at least 25 years old, they are more likely to be impulsive, susceptible to peer pressure, and less able to weigh the causes and effects of their actions.
Those realities are compounded for Indigenous youth due to the intergenerational trauma inflicted upon Tribal communities as a result of our country’s original sin: colonization.
The rate of Indigenous fetal alcohol syndrome is more than eight times the national average. Psychological factors, such as the fear experienced by pregnant Indigenous mothers who are battered, create physiological changes that negatively impact brain development.
From the moment they are born, many Indigenous children suffer neurological harm. By the time of adolescence, many Indigenous youth suffer an inability to decipher right from wrong or the repercussions of poor decisions. And when they falter as adolescents, the Washington state criminal “justice” system catapults them into our state’s prison pipeline rather than helping them rehabilitate.
Indigenous adolescents are 30 percent more likely to be referred into our state’s juvenile justice system than white adolescents. In turn, Indigenous persons disproportionately suffer life or long sentences in Washington. The number of Indigenous persons serving long sentences is two and a half times the percentage of Washington’s Indigenous population.
Those life and long sentences correlate to the fact that of nearly 1,000 Indigenous persons in Washington state prisons today, 41 percemt of them suffer a juvenile felony adjudication on their offender score. That is the highest rate of disproportionate sentencing enhancement suffered by any racial group in our state carceral system.
The sordid history of Tribal displacement and Indigenous family separation at the hands of the U.S. government has created a cycle of intergenerational trauma that manifests in substance use and domestic violence within Tribal communities. It all now compounds through mass incarceration.
As historic trauma and carceral institutionalization synergize, our peoples endure spiritual devastation and grow weaker. Those dynamics lead to institutional mindsets and cumulative group trauma and, in turn, further disproportionate criminal prosecution and incarceration. Rinse, repeat.
Still, our Tribal communities and Indigenous families are trying their hardest to break the cycle. But our people, especially our youth, need a break. We need time and space. We need hope and healing. We need our relatives, especially those who made mistakes when they were young, to come home. Our organizations stand ready to help our relatives successfully reenter society and avoid recidivism.
Last month, the State House of Representatives passed HB 1324 to apply retroactively to people currently serving unjust life or long sentences. But when the bill reached the Senate last week, the bill was amended so it would only apply to future cases. That was a missed opportunity for justice for our peoples, and healing for our relatives.
If Washington sincerely cherishes Indigenous people and culture as part of our state’s fabric, or seeks to atone for the historic harms that have befallen our state’s original peoples, HB 1324 presents a real opportunity. Our elected representatives in the Senate should pass an amendment to restore retroactivity to the bill and support a fresh start for Indigenous youth and families.
Derrick Belgarde is the executive director of Chief Seattle Club in Seattle. Gabe Galanda is the chairman of Huy’s Board of Advisers in Seattle. Winona Stevens is the executive director of Native American Reentry Services in Tacoma and serves on the Washington Statewide Reentry Council.