- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 21, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - State and federal officials in the Dakotas are working with an American Indian reservation that straddles the two states’ border on a project to reduce the number of released felons who return to a life of crime.

The effort eventually could be used as a model by tribes throughout the country to reduce the rate of recidivism, or the commission of new crimes by convicts after they are released back into society, officials said.

“There’s nothing out there like it,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II said. “It’s been a long time coming, for a lot of agencies to recognize that there’s a problem and see what we can do. If it works, it can be something that other tribes can explore.”

Officials cite a lack of services and jobs as a big reason for recidivism on the reservation, and the Multijurisdictional Re-entry Services Team hopes to come up with a blueprint for addressing those problems.

Possible measures include identifying employers both on and off the reservation who would be willing to hire convicted felons, identifying housing resources and creating halfway houses, and establishing American Indian mentors.

“A big goal of the program is to have a mentorship aspect, to help people reconnect with their culture and heritage,” said Troy Morley, assistant U.S. attorney in South Dakota and a member of the Re-entry Services team.

The project grew from the efforts of Timothy Purdon, a former U.S. attorney for North Dakota who built a career out of American Indian issues. He and former South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson now are with the Minneapolis-based Robins Kaplan law firm, looking to represent tribes around the country on a variety of issues.

Purdon told the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in February 2014 that federal law enforcement officials should figure out a way to bring post-release services to reservations. He estimates more than half of offenders who return to Standing Rock end up committing new crimes. A November 2013 report by the Indian Law and Order Commission concluded that Native youth experience violent crime at rates up to 10 times the national average.

“It’s a public safety issue,” Purdon said in an interview. “We need to provide services to these returning offenders to keep these communities safe.”

The Standing Rock tribe and state and federal officials signed an agreement earlier this month creating the Re-entry Services team. The goal is to have released convicts “become productive citizens for our communities, rather than a burden,” Archambault said.

The core of the team includes federal prosecutors from both states, state corrections and tribal relations officials, and Sioux tribe officials.

“We have a sovereign tribal government coming together with authorities from two different states and two different federal districts, historically agreeing to partner together,” said Gary Delorme, assistant U.S. attorney for North Dakota and a member of the team.

The team might eventually work with others such as mental health officials, church organizations and veterans groups, according to Morley. Members are meeting monthly and by the end of the year hope to identify a couple of soon-to-be released prisoners to launch the program.

In the meantime, the tribe is preparing to apply for grants to provide any funding that is needed to operate the program. Purdon said the Justice Department also might need to consider dedicating more resources to the problem of recidivism, making U.S. attorney offices “not just case prosecutors (but) community problem-solvers. The problem here is public safety on the reservations.”


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