Brandon Ecoffey: Criminal justice reforms for Indian Country

Brandon Ecoffey

A note from the editor’s desk
By Brandon Ecoffey
LCT Editor

Last week I had the opportunity to cover an article that had special meaning to me and many others who have had intimate encounters with the American justice system.

In the coming weeks the federal government is set to release 6,000 non-violent drug offenders back on to the streets early in what is the largest release of its kind in American history. These 6,000 prisoners have all benefited from a move by the federal sentencing commission that basically reduced their sentences by 2 years in an attempt to reduce overcrowding and overspending by the Department of Justice on prisons and to help fix the historical over reaching sentencing of these types of offenders.

As we all know the United States is by far and away one of the largest producers of prisoners of any developed nation in the world. The sad part is that many of those people who are spending decades behind bars are not there for stealing millions on Wall Street or for bombing innocent people in campaigns of conquest across globe but are there for petty non-violent drug offenses.

The notion that those consumed by mass incarceration are the worst of the worst is simply a marketing ploy by both politicians and those who have invested their wealth in to the for-profit prison industry. The move by the DOJ and the federal sentencing commission to release so many non-violent offenders early is a sign of a change that is a long time coming. Although we have been taught to believe that we as a society can prosecute and sentence our way out of love affair with illegal narcotics we now have a forty year sample to evaluate and prove that this approach hasn’t worked.

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Since Richard Nixon first declared a war on drugs in 1971 $1 trillion has been spent on the effort to rid this country of illegal narcotics. During that time we have seen incarceration rates grow exponentially while the use of them has relatively remained the same.

For those who have been locked up as a result of their offenses and this policy of mass incarceration nearly 68% were rearrested within two years of being released and 77% were rearrested within the first three years of hitting the streets. Mass incarceration has done nothing to address the use of illegal drugs in this country nor has it done enough to reintegrate those who it has institutionalized back in to society.

America’s drug problem is not a criminal issue but a public health concern that needs to be approached from the perspective of mental health and addiction specialists who can better address the ultimate culprit which is addiction. When the dealers go to prison the addict is left behind. Until policy makers realize that the addict is the driving force behind the circulation of any substance or vice there can never be any real change.

There are those out there who argue that this issue is a matter of personal choice and of personal responsibility, this is very much true on an individual level but again this is a matter of public policy and the continued practice of mass incarceration is no longer financially feasible nor can poor and minority communities continue to suffer the loss of so many of its young people to the prison system.

Luckily, there is real bipartisan movement in Congress on criminal justice reform and it is time for tribes to lend their political influence and capitalize on a chance to make inroads not only with Democrats -- who have been longtime allies -- but, to make inroads with GOP lawmakers who will most defiantly be needed as allies in the coming future. Criminal Justice reform is something we all know needs to happen.

Brandon Ecoffey is the editor of Lakota Country Times and an award winning journalist who was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He can be reached at

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