On a morning he should have been in middle school, 12-year-old Isaac Durham collapsed on the sidewalk after drinking a fifth of vodka stolen from a Circle K in Flagstaff, Arizona. After the paramedics pumped his stomach, he was charged with underaged consumption of alcohol and became a juvenile offender for the first time.
In the seven years that followed, Durham, a member of the Hopi Tribe, spent five years, on and off, in juvenile detention. Before he was locked up, he strategically bounced between the reservation and non-Indian land to avoid punishment – exploiting the divide between tribal and county jurisdictions.
“By the age of 19, I was a full blown meth and heroin addict, injecting meth and heroin and homeless on the streets,” Durham said. “That’s when I was at my rock bottom.”
Generations of historical trauma and increased exposure to violence make young Native Americans more vulnerable to the complicated, often contradictory clutches of the juvenile justice system, legal experts say. Once in the justice system, Native children become lost in a jurisdictional web, a dysfunctional state system and a federal system that has no proper place for them.
Isaac Palone, a member of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe, whose desert reservation straddles the Colorado River in southern Arizona and California, shares a similar story.
Palone was born on his grandmother’s living room floor to an alcoholic mother who had taken laxatives to conceal her pregnancy. After years of abuse in both his family home and in state care, he turned to drugs and alcohol.
“By 12, I was already involved with the cops,” Palone said.
He spent his last four months as a minor on probation for burglary. Soon after he turned 18, he broke the law again and, according to the Yuma Sun, was one of the city’s most wanted criminals. Tried for three burglaries and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, he was convicted and imprisoned for seven months.