U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Elder Panels: An Alternative to Incarceration for Tribal Members

NCJ Number
Date Published
June 2014
12 pages
This bulletin reviews how tribal elders, who traditionally are leaders in promoting tribal customs and traditions among American Indian tribes, can be used both formally and informally in diverting low-risk to medium-risk offenders to elder panels that determine case dispositions as alternatives to incarceration, and guidance is provided on establishing such panels.
The most common models for diversionary justice programs are deferred prosecution and coercion-free. In deferred prosecution, judicial oversight is retained, so that if the individual fails to comply with the terms/conditions set by the elder panel he/she can be referred back to the tribal court for adjudication/sentencing. If the individual successfully completes the terms/conditions imposed by the elder panel, then the charges are typically removed from the record. In the coercion-free model, the charges are dismissed with the understanding that the individual will comply with the elder panel's terms/conditions; however, because the charges are dismissed by the court, the risk of the case being referred back to the tribal court for non-compliance is removed. This model operates on the honor system. The tribal court may also use an elder panel as a stipulated condition of probation. In some tribal communities, elders on the panel are vested by tribal law to impose sentence in lieu of a tribal court judge. In this capacity, panel members may conduct hearings to determine appropriate dispositions or resolutions. Another beneficial way to involve elders in the tribal justice system is to assign them as mentors, who will share their knowledge and experience with individuals who may not have a sense of connection to the tribe and its behavioral and attitudinal customs. Guidance is provided for designing an elder panel program. A resource web site address is provided.

Date Published: June 1, 2014