Lessons Learned from the Comprehensive Indian Resources for Community and Law Enforcement (CIRCLE) Project

The CIRCLE Project's goal was to reduce crime and improve safety in Native communities by making tribal criminal justice systems stronger.[1]

The following lessons from the CIRCLE Project evaluation may inform future efforts by tribes and their federal partners to strengthen law enforcement and public safety in Indian communities:

  • System reform can improve safety in Native nations. When all the parts of the justice system work together, tribes are better able to address pressing crime problems. At Zuni Pueblo, technology changes and new communication protocols strengthened the criminal justice system and made the community safer.
  • Smaller scale changes can also reduce crime — and may have more impact. When a tribe is not ready for system-level change (for example, when the justice system is incomplete or there is little political will for change), smaller scale changes can improve agency performance, promote safety and reduce crime. These opportunities must be uncovered at the local level. They emerge when a tribe develops an accurate, data-based portrait of how its criminal justice system functions.
  • Collaboration among federal agencies supports tribal justice system reform. In CIRCLE, U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) agency coordination helped tribes receive the funds they needed to enhance a range of criminal justice programs and strengthen their justice systems.
  • Successful investments respect Native nations' sovereignty and cultures. Tribal partners are eager to engage in federal initiatives that create stronger, self-determined tribal institutions. Hence, project goals, funding and implementation should reflect an understanding of tribes as separate sovereigns, not as subsidiary governments in the U.S. federal structure. Giving tribes the opportunity to tailor change to their unique cultures is an important aspect of self-determination in program and system design.
  • Investments should help create sustainable change (tribal justice system reforms or fixes that can weather fiscal and political challenges). Without sustainability, CIRCLE-like investments are little more than short-term jobs programs. If sustainability is addressed at the start of a project, local partners are better able to design changes with staying power. For example, they may decide to invest in technical assistance or technology because of their long-term effects.

The most important finding from the CIRCLE Project comes from thinking about these lessons in combination. The United States Department of Justice and tribes should take a new approach to justice system enhancement in Indian Country. They should:

  • Focus on and fund local data collection. Future tribal and federal investment in Indian Country justice systems should focus initially on local data collection. In CIRCLE, participatory evaluation research partnerships helped identify key issues, challenges and opportunities. They could not have been conceived by distant policymakers or discovered through the analysis of national data trends.
  • Use data to create tribe-specific plans. Collaborators should use the data — not generalized perceptions or the requirements of particular funding streams — to determine realistic, sustainable tribe-specific plans for reforms that will make the tribe's justice system more independent and effective. Many opportunities will involve smaller fixes, not systemwide change.

Read the full report on CIRCLE's design and implementation.

Read the full report on CIRCLE's outcomes.


[note 1] The CIRCLE Project — the Comprehensive Indian Resources for Community and Law Enforcement Project — was a partnership of several agencies in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Oglala Sioux Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni to strengthen the tribes' criminal justice systems. As part of the initiative, the National Institute of Justice and its DOJ partners funded an evaluation of the CIRCLE Project.

Funds came from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Corrections Program Office, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office for Victims of Crime, Office on Violence Against Women, and Office of the Comptroller. Some of this money would have been invested in Indian Country anyway; however, the native nations participating in CIRCLE received between 40 percent and 400 percent more from participating DOJ agencies than comparable tribes. Learn more about the CIRCLE Project and its evaluation.

Date Modified: January 20, 2010