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Native American Youth: Information on Involvement in Justice Systems and Grant Programs to Help Address Juvenile Delinquency

GAO-18-697T Published: Sep 26, 2018. Publicly Released: Sep 26, 2018.
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Fast Facts

Federal reports on Native American youth found challenges—such as poverty and exposure to violence—that can make them susceptible to being arrested, charged, or sentenced in the justice system.

This testimony includes a discussion of our findings:

Overall Native American juvenile delinquency rates declined 2010-2016.

While most Native American youth in the system were at the state or local level, their share of the population in the federal system was higher than their share of the nationwide youth population—likely due to federal jurisdiction on tribal lands.

We also found 122 federal grant programs to address underlying challenges.

Number of Native American Youth Arrested by State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, by State, Calendar Year 2016

Map showing eight states had more than 500 arrests of Native American youth in 2016

Map showing eight states had more than 500 arrests of Native American youth in 2016

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What GAO Found

GAO's analysis of available data found that the number of American Indian and Alaska Native (Native American) youth in federal and state and local justice systems declined across all phases of the justice process—arrest, adjudication, and confinement—from 2010 through 2016. During this period, state and local arrests of Native American youth declined by almost 40 percent from 18,295 in 2010 to 11,002 in 2016. The vast majority of Native American youth came into contact with state and local justice systems rather than the federal system.

Number of Native American Youth Arrested by State and Local Agencies and Federal Agencies, 2010–2016





State and local (calendar year)




Federal (fiscal year)




Source: GAO analysis of Federal Bureau of Investigation (state and local) and U.S. Marshals Service data (federal). | GAO-18-591

Note: Both data sources use the race category “American Indian or Alaskan Native” but define it differently. Race information is based on various methods including self-identification and documentation. Federal data include youth in federal custody after a federal arrest and may not capture all arrests by federal law enforcement agencies.

However, more Native American youth were involved in the federal system than their percentage in the nationwide population (1.6 percent). For example, of all youth arrested by federal entities during the period, 18 percent were Native American. According to Department of Justice (DOJ) officials, this is due to federal jurisdiction over certain crimes involving Native Americans. Comprehensive data on Native American youth involvement in tribal justice systems were not available for analysis. GAO's analysis showed several differences between Native American and non-Native American youth in the federal justice system. For example, the majority of Native American youths' involvement was for offenses against a person, such as assault and sex offenses. In contrast, the majority of non-Native American youths' involvement was for public order offenses (e.g., immigration violations) or drug or alcohol offenses. On the other hand, in state and local justice systems, the involvement of Native American and non-Native American youth showed many similarities, such as similar offenses for each group.

DOJ and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) offered at least 122 discretionary grants and cooperative agreements (grant programs) from fiscal years 2015 through 2017 that could be used to address juvenile delinquency among Native American youth. DOJ and HHS made approximately $1.2 billion in first-year awards to grantees during the period, of which the agencies awarded approximately $207.7 million to tribal governments or Native American organizations. Officials from the agencies, tribal governments, and Native American organizations identified factors they believe affect success in applying for grant programs. For example, some tribal governments and Native American organizations found being able to call or meet with federal officials during the application process helpful but found that short application deadlines are a challenge.

Why GAO Did This Study

This testimony summarizes the information contained in GAO's September 2018 report, entitled Native American Youth: Involvement in Justice Systems and Information on Grants to Help Address Juvenile Delinquency (GAO-18-591).

For more information, contact Gretta L. Goodwin, 202-512-8777,

Full Report

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ArrestsChildrenCrimesFederal prisonsGrant programsJustice systemJuvenile courtsJuvenile delinquencyJuvenile justiceLaw courtsNative AmericansTeenagersTribal governments