2017 Semifinalist
Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes
January 1, 2017

The Tribal Defenders Office (TDO) is a public defender agency for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) representing American Indians accused of crimes committed within the boundaries of the Flathead Reservation in northwestern Montana. CSKT has 7,779 members, comprised of the Bitterroot Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai Tribes. The Flathead Reservation is also home to American Indians from 200 other tribal affiliations and half of TDO's clients are members of other federally recognized tribes. American Indians are grossly overrepresented in Montana’s criminal justice system. Only 7 percent of Montana’s total population, American Indians make up 36 percent of the female prison population and 20 percent of the male prison population. The overrepresentation in the criminal justice system is due in part to historical trauma from colonization, broken treaties, and forced relocation. The resulting anxiety, depression, and anger, have manifested themselves in mental illness and chemical dependency, and in turn, contact with the criminal justice system.  Prior to 2009, TDO approached public defense in the standard, adversarial way – a cog in the punitive justice system that focused on one aspect of the problem — the alleged crime. It was a reactive approach, dealing with clients on a case-by-case basis. As a result, clients simply cycled through the system with high rates of recidivism, proving ineffective in reducing over-incarceration. In 2009, with the help of a federal grant and technical assistance from the Bronx Defenders in New York, TDO implemented an innovative public defense model called “holistic defense” that views the client as a whole person and addresses all aspects of the case, including underlying issues and collateral consequences. TDO started a mental health collaboration program that offered psychology and case management services to individuals most at risk to recidivate due to mental illness and substance use disorders. TDO’s program successfully reduced recidivism for its clients. Without grant funding since 2011, TDO kept its program running through minimal funding from CSKT Tribal Health. Despite positive results, TDO still encountered barriers to services for their clients.  . In response, TDO increased its efforts to educate stakeholders and address the needs of CSKT’s indigent community. TDO implemented a bad check diversion program, driver’s license restoration, cultural mentoring, civil assistance for collateral consequences to criminal charges, community service, community education and, in 2015 a reentry program.