Building a Tribal Court in Klamath, OR

The Klamath Tribes of Oregon are located in the city of Chiloquin, which has a population of approximately 3000. There are 3600 members of the tribe, although members are dispersed throughout the country. The Klamath tribes originally governed and occupied approximately 22 million acres. However, their federal recognition was terminated in 1954 through the Klamath Termination Act, which ended the Tribes’ federal recognition and disposed of the reservation in its entirety. The Klamath Tribes gained federal recognition in 1986. However, they were restored without a land base, but with a service area of Klamath County, which covers approximately 6,151 square miles. The area surrounding Chiloquin is very rural, and there are limited opportunities for extracurricular activities for youth. The community has faced problems with both underage drinking and drug use, as well as high dropout rates in schools. Until recently, many youth received punitive punishments in state courts for these offenses. This began to change in 1999 when the tribes decided to create their own court system. After significant research and planning, the tribal court heard its first case in January 2006. The court made juvenile cases its first priority, and has worked with local social service agencies to create alternative options for youth who commit non-felony crimes. One issue that the court has struggled with is gaining community trust. When the court was first established, there was some uncertainty within the community about whether it could carry out its duties successfully. There were also concerns about the court’s ability to rule objectively, given the close-knit relationships between members of the community. Although the court hears a small number of cases, it is continuing to expand and successfully connect with social service agencies to provide alternative options for youth involved in the juvenile justice system. An expulsion diversion program was created through these partnerships so that youth who are charged with possession of alcohol, drugs, or weapons, or fighting on school grounds are not automatically expelled from schools, as mandated by zero tolerance policies. The program also allows for the provision of counseling and other services, as well as continued court monitoring. The court is currently in the process of hiring its first full-time probation officer, which will enable it to serve a much greater number of youth. The Klamath TYP program and the court are working to establish additional services for youth, including programming that is culturally relevant. They believe that the court and youth services are essential to support both the youth and the broader Klamath community, and are working to ensure that they are sustained long into the future.

“Community and stakeholder buy in is huge. Communication with the community about successes and downfalls of your program is also very important. You must have a lot of patience and dedication, and always continue moving forward.” -Diana Lang, Tribal Court Administrator

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