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Navajo Supreme Court Rules Incarceration of Children for Disorderly Conduct Illegal April 27, 2008

Posted by rezjudicata in Navajo Supreme Court, Tribal Courts.

In re N.B., No. SC-CV-03-08 (Nav. Sup. Ct. Apr. 16, 2008)

Issue(s): Navajo Law > Habeas Corpus; Navajo Law > Juvenile Justice >> Dispositions >>> Incarceration; Navajo Law > Fundamental Law >> Diné bi beenehaz’áanii

After the Family Court adjudicated N.B. a delinquent for disorderly conduct, it placed him on suspended probation. N.B., however, failed to comply with the court’s conditions. In response, the court revoked N.B.’s probation and jailed him. If under Navajo law the court could not imprison an adult for disorderly conduct, could the court imprison N.B. for the same offense?

No, ruled the Navajo Supreme Court. In general, the Navajo Nation Children’s Code authorizes prison terms for delinquency adjudications. But the Children’s Code does not separately enumerate offenses. Thus, the court must turn to adult criminal code provisions for guidance on the elements of a given offense. The adult criminal code also provides the range of sentencing options for violations. For disorderly conduct, fines, restitution, and labor are appropriate, but not incarceration. Consequently, an adult could never be imprisoned for disorderly conduct as the family court did N.B.

According to the Supreme Court, Diné bi beenehaz’áanii prohibits such a result. The principle of Diné bi beenehaz’áanii views children as fragile and emotionally immature who need to be treated with care and respect. Incarceration, said the Court, is a severe remedy to be imposed on children only when necessary. Permitting more severe remedies for children than adults would be entirely inconsistent with Diné bi beenehaz’áanii. Therefore, the Family Court illegally imprisoned N.B. and the Court released him from incarceration.



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