Justice issues are on my mind on this, another King Day weekend. I am presently deeply immersed in the topic of justice since I have the privilege and the responsibility of writing a half a dozen grants for Native tribes to expand and enhance their justice systems. I love writing grants for tribal communities. There is always so much to learn and I often feel like I am visiting a foreign country, which in fact I am since tribes are technically sovereign nations. Even so, there are parameters to the types of justice issues that tribes can handle within their own tribal justice systems.
I recently read an interview with the Native writer Louise Erdrich in which she asserted that increasing numbers of tribal youth are heading to law school. She believes that the future of Native peoples lies in their ability to manage justice issues, and that tribal youth are beginning to recognize this. She has a point. One of the brightest young men I have met from a local Pomo tribe that I work with just went off to Harvard Law School this past fall. He had to give up his position as a member of the Tribal Council to go. But I know he’ll be back one day, probably to serve as a judge.
The judge who works with some of the tribes that have hired me is an extraordinary woman. She is Klamath. She is married and has two young children and she travels all over Northern California to serve as the contractual “circuit” judge for a number of tribes. Her big thing is developing Family Wellness Courts. In this type of court, people who have committed crimes related to drug use, child abuse, and domestic violence, among other things, are not locked up. Instead they are placed in a diversion program where a case manager links them to a web of services, including therapy, to help them address the root causes of the criminal behavior. Perpetrators of these kinds of crimes are not evil people; they are usually people who experienced trauma as children and have not received adequate therapeutic services to heal from their own trauma. The judge continues to oversee the progress of individuals in Family Wellness Court through periodic visits with the court. If the person fails to take full advantage of the services, to meet the terms of their program, and to complete any community service required (very often including certain forms of restitution), then the judge has the power to send that person to jail. But the Family Wellness Court program works so well that people don’t wind up in jail. They wind up changing their lives. How sensible! When someone makes a real mess of things, instead of locking him or her up, the community provides an avalanche of supportive services to get to the bottom of the problem and resolve it. So basically, tribal justice systems are about healing rather than punishment. They are about transformation rather than shame.
These types of courts don’t just exist in tribal communities. I have written grants for similar court structures for agencies all over the country, particularly drug courts. But I do love the way tribal communities view justice and healing as intrinsic to one another. You may wonder why we don’t convert all our justice systems to healing structures like this. The reason why it doesn’t happen is pretty much all about lack of money. It’s labor-intensive to provide the necessary services to people who have a lot of issues. That’s where I come in, writing grants to secure money for Natives to expand and enhance their tribal justice systems so that these systems can change lives and transform communities. If I had a mission statement for my life it might be something about acting as a change agent in the world; so writing these grants is, as we say in the grant writing world, “in alignment with my mission statement.”
I submit these tribal justice system grants in March and then I’m done with them for this year. This is the third year I have written them. I’ve met with success in the past and have secured money for local tribes each year that I have written. After I complete this batch then I’ll have to wait until next year to go after more. Grant writing is not a very glamorous occupation. I don’t wear sequins to work (more like fuzzy slippers). And I often have to write rather boring material. What a treat to write tribal justice system grants for a few weeks. My heart is in it.