The CIRCLE Evaluation: How Can Federal Funds Best Assist Tribal Nations?
As small, domestic dependent nations, many American Indian tribes face pressing crime and social problems but have limited resources with which to address them.
In 1998, several agencies in the U.S. Department of Justice partnered with the
Northern Cheyenne Tribe,
Oglala Sioux Tribe and
Pueblo of Zuni to strengthen the tribes' criminal justice systems. The initiative, called the Comprehensive Indian Resources for Community and Law Enforcement (CIRCLE) Project, provided funding and federal support to help tribes consider how they might better address crime and public safety problems.
The goal of the CIRCLE Project was to reduce crime and improve safety in Native American communities by strengthening tribal criminal justice systems. It worked to change how individual components of the tribes' justice systems (police, prosecution, courts, detention, etc.) operated, related to one another and worked with nonjustice agencies. This comprehensive and transformative approach contrasts with targeted reform, which focuses on a single problem or a narrow set of problems.
Evaluating the CIRCLE Project
In late 2000, the National Institute of Justice funded a 48-month
participatory evaluation of the CIRCLE Project. The evaluation was participatory in that federal and tribal partners collaborated with external evaluators to identify the evaluation's goals and design, collect data and assess whether the CIRCLE Project enhanced Native American nations' criminal justice systems. It also assessed the federal partners' efforts to provide assistance to the tribes. The evaluation had two parts:
- An 18-month process evaluation of CIRCLE's design and implementation. It considered how the federal government planned, funded and coordinated funding for the project. It also considered tribes' plans for and use of the money.
- A 30-month evaluation of each Native American nation's accomplishments and the overall project outcomes.
The 18-month evaluation report describes each of the four participating governments' goals and challenges and uncovers lessons learned (the four governments are the three tribal governments and the U.S. federal government).
Read the full report.
The 30-month evaluation report describes the tribes' accomplishments, suggests ways to build on work begun during the CIRCLE Project, and emphasizes the use of smaller scale (as opposed to systemwide) change.
Read the full report.
Creating the Comprehensive Indian Resources for Community and Law Enforcement (CIRCLE) Project
Historically, many Native American nations had effective, socially centered systems of governance.
 With the growing dominance of western culture, indigenous methods of governance and social control began to wane. By the late 20th century, these losses combined with other impacts of colonization could have contributed to significant crime and public safety problems in Indian Country. Reports of violent crime, victimization, domestic abuse, drug-related crime and gang activity dominated the conversation about reservation policing.
In response to these concerns, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) began to look for better ways to support law enforcement and public safety in Indian Country. It invested in several initiatives to strengthen Native American nations' law enforcement and justice systems and, through evaluation, began to learn from them. These federal initiatives included:
- The Tribal Strategies Against Violence Program.
- The Indian Country Justice Initiative.
- Tribal partnerships in the Weed and Seed programs.
With the U.S. Department of the Interior, DOJ convened the Executive Committee for Indian Country Law Enforcement Improvements to make recommendations to the President for improving safety in Indian Country. DOJ also recognized more American Indian tribes as eligible recipients of grant funds.
DOJ's efforts led to a three-year collaborative funding initiative known as the Comprehensive Indian Resources for Community and Law Enforcement (CIRCLE) Project. The CIRCLE Project provided $46.4 million in grants between federal fiscal year 1999 and fiscal year 2001
 to the Pueblo of Zuni, Northern Cheyenne Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribe. Tribes were encouraged to use grant funds to:
- Buy equipment and computer technology.
- Hire and train law enforcement personnel.
- Build corrections facilities.
- Enhance tribal courts.
- Create or improve juvenile justice programs.
- Improve victim services for women and children.
Read an NIJ Journal article on how the CIRCLE Project was started.
Read about the CIRCLE Project's history on page 29 of the full report (pdf, 81 pages).
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.
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.
How Tribes Used Federal Funds Under the CIRCLE Project to Improve Their Justice Systems
Three tribes received funding under the CIRCLE project.
The Pueblo of Zuni
The Pueblo of Zuni focused its budget on:
- Strengthening agencies, including the police department, corrections facilities and domestic violence service providers.
- Building a management information system to better connect police, prosecutors, courts and victim service agencies.
- Expanding community policing programs.
- Developing a model to help stop youth and family violence.
For more information about the Pueblo of Zuni's focus, read page 64 of the full report.
The Northern Cheyenne Tribe
The Northern Cheyenne Tribe focused its budget on:
- Creating a better tribal court by expanding probation programs and hiring more staff.
- Building a juvenile detention and rehabilitation center.
- Expanding the police force.
- Enhancing domestic violence and other victim assistance services.
For more information about the focus, read page 86 of the full report.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe
The Oglala Sioux Tribe focused its budget on:
- Expanding youth services.
- Improving its tribal court system.
- Expanding the police force.
- Enhancing victim assistance services.
For more information about the Oglala Sioux Tribe's focus, read page 113 of the full report.
What the Northern Cheyenne Accomplished Under the CIRCLE Project
The Northern Cheyenne Tribe worked to reduce juvenile delinquency. The community's investments included:
- Expanding probation services.
- Investing in more tribal court system staff.
- Expanding its police force.
- Creating domestic violence and other victim assistance programs.
- Providing culturally appropriate services to juvenile delinquents.
- Constructing a juvenile detention center.
These investments had both short-term and longer term effects:
In the short term, CIRCLE investments made law enforcement more effective, and officers brought more delinquent youth into the justice system.
In the longer term, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe's new, CIRCLE-funded juvenile detention center improved opportunities for delinquent youth. However, even though the tribe could not sustain the project's other program and staffing investments after the three years of CIRCLE funding expired.
Using participatory evaluation methods, researchers shifted their focus to:
- Gaining a comprehensive understanding of juvenile crime on the reservation.
- Developing a tribal juvenile justice strategy that would extend and complement the benefits of the tribe's new juvenile detention and rehabilitation center.
Because data were sparse, researchers looked for information from a variety of traditional and nontraditional sources. They examined incident and arrest reports, case files, arrest logs and reports to funders and oversight agencies.
Results showed that:
- Officers most commonly arrested youth for public intoxication and curfew violations.
- Repeat offenders accounted for much juvenile crime.
- Violent juvenile offenders sometimes began their careers as repeat petty offenders.
The evaluation pointed to a new strategy for fighting crime at the Northern Cheyenne reservation. By targeting low-level offenders, the tribe could effectively diminish the frequency and severity of reservation crime.
For more information, see page 23 of the full report (pdf, 81 pages)
What the Oglala Sioux Accomplished Under the CIRCLE Project
The Oglala Sioux Tribe used CIRCLE funds to:
- Improve the court system by hiring specialized advocacy, probation and administrative staff.
- Increase the size of the tribal police force.
- Enhance domestic violence and other victim assistance services.
- Expand youth services at the Boys & Girls Club, runaway and homeless youth shelter and tribal youth program.
The Oglala Sioux community has unemployment rates of 85 to 90 percent. Crime and social problems on the tribe's Pine Ridge Reservation are severe. Tribal political turmoil is common.
Ultimately, economic, social and political factors made it difficult for the CIRCLE partners to identify a means for lasting system change.
As a result,
evaluators examined the challenges the tribe faced in reforming its criminal justice system. These included:
- High police turnover.
- Breakdowns in the progression of cases through the justice system.
Arrests often did not lead to investigation, and investigations often did not lead to prosecution. Disarray in the records hindered follow-up on crimes. Sometimes cases were not sent forward because an agency felt the receiving agency would not work on the case anyway.
Cases were dealt with inconsistently. For example, is public intoxication a crime under tribal law? If so, should the offender go to jail or be fined? If fined, should police or the court collect the fine? Law enforcement and court officials' inconsistent answers to these questions damaged the credibility of the tribe's justice system.
- Weak administrative systems.
Limited documentation. Nonprofit organizations supervised probationers but had no written authorization to do so. Frequently, probation supervisors lacked documents that reported final court requirements in each case.
Disorganized court records. For the time period studied, 10 percent of case files could not be found and the resolution of 40 percent of cases was unknown. Officers could not access records of offenders' past convictions because cases were filed by date, not by name. Such problems decreased conviction rates and made it less likely that sentences would be enforced. They also created opportunities for system exploitation.
Inadequate law enforcement policies and procedures. Many Department of Public Safety policies and written procedures were out of date or missing key documents.
These findings suggested that the Oglala Sioux Tribe should focus on modest, targeted changes rather than trying to reform the entire justice system. The evaluation team suggested several approaches:
- The tribal court could make simple improvements in record-keeping to address administrative problems. Identifying repeat offenders could be a priority in this work.
- Tribal criminal justice leaders could work together to map out consistent policies and procedures for certain offenses (like public intoxication) and begin interagency collaboration around these changes.
- The tribe could assess the reasons for police turnover and take steps to solve the problem. One approach is to make police more accountable to local communities on the reservation.
For more information, see page 28 of the final report (pdf, 81 pages).
What the Pueblo of Zuni Accomplished Under the CIRCLE Project
The Pueblo of Zuni was interested in breaking the cycle of violence that leads to much of the crime on its reservation, including alcohol-related crime, youth violence and family violence. The Pueblo developed a plan that involved:
- Investing in a justice-focused management information system.
- Creating after-school and recreation programs.
- Improving programs that target domestic violence and child abuse and neglect.
- Recruiting and training police officers.
- Implementing community policing strategies.
- Funding police communications equipment.
- Building a new corrections facility.
The Pueblo of Zuni saw a reduction in several types of crime by the end of the CIRCLE Project:
Arrests for simple assault decreased from 205 in 2002 to 94 in 2004.
Arrests for public drunkenness and driving under the influence decreased 40 percent between 2001 and 2004.
Arrests for endangerment and domestic violence did not decrease. At the close of the evaluation, these remained a problem for the tribe.
Two aspects of Zuni's CIRCLE Project were particularly effective at helping the Pueblo's criminal justice system respond to crime:
- The management information system helped justice officials track cases from arrest to sentencing. It also helped the tribe generate crime statistics.
- The project partners' ongoing collaboration (joint work by tribal law enforcement, courts, corrections and service providers) helped the partners develop an effective crime-fighting strategy and the ability to adapt that strategy over time.
For more information, read page 16 of the full report (pdf, 81 pages).
[note 1] A system of governance is "a set of rules — institutions — that societies put in place to organize themselves and get done what they need to get done, and the mechanisms they use to implement and enforce those rules" (Manley A. Begay, Stephen Cornell, Miriam Jorgensen and Joseph P. Kalt, "Development, Governance, Culture: What Are They, and What Do They Have to Do with Rebuilding Native Nations?" in Miriam Jorgensen (ed.), Rebuilding Native Nations: Strategies for Governance and Development, Tucson: University of Arizona, p. 41.)
[note 2] See, for example, International Association of Chiefs of Police, "Improving Safety in Indian Country: Recommendations from the IACP 2001 Summit," Alexandria, Va., October 2001.
[note 3] The CIRCLE Project — the Comprehensive Indian Resources for Community and Law Enforcement — 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. Learn more about the CIRCLE Project and its evaluation.
[note 4] 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 Office, and Office of the Comptroller. Some of this money would have been invested in Indian Country anyway; however, the native nations that participated in CIRCLE received between 40 percent and 400 percent more from participating DOJ agencies than comparable tribes.
[note 6] 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.
[note 8] These reductions may not have been caused by the CIRCLE Project, but they were certainly associated with the Project's timing.
Date Modified: January 20, 2010