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If you're American Indian in Montana, you have a good chance of going to prison.

In 2008, 20 percent of the men in Montana prisons were Indian, while 27 percent of female inmates was Indian. The imprisonment is happening in a state where American Indians only make up about 7 percent of the state population, according a Montana Department of Corrections biennial report.

If state officials continue to imprison American Indian men and women at rates three to four times above the state's white population, more should be done to ensure American Indians have adequate representation before they end up behind bars. And if that doesn't work, at least give them a voice in prison such as white inmates have.

Montana is among a handful of states where Indians are disproportionately sent to prison, including North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and South Dakota. Consider these statistics from a 1999 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, American Indians and Crime:

n One out of every 200 American Indian adults is convicted of a felony crime, compared to one of every 300 white adults.

n More than 4 percent of the adult American Indian population is under correctional supervision, even though they only make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population. Only 2 percent of white adults were under correctional supervision.

n About half of American Indians under correctional supervision are in jail or prison, whereas less than a third of correctional populations nationwide are confined behind bars.

n The majority of federal cases filed against American Indians arose in Montana, South Dakota, Arizona and New Mexico.

A few steps can be taken - before and after imprisonment - to eliminate the adverse treatment of disadvantaged American Indian men and women who are denied the same opportunities as non-Indians who commit the same crimes.

First, Montana lawmakers should support a bill introduced by Rep. Carolyn Pease-Lopez, D-Billings, who is asking her colleagues in the Legislature to pass a law that would create a permanent position for an American Indian on the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole.

While the state parole board does have Native representatives, Pease-Lopez's bill would ensure a statutorily required position on the board. Too often, American Indian inmates, be they in jail or prison, suffer from institutionalized racism.

Ask anyone who knows the system. An American Indian on the parole board would ensure fair treatment.

Second, Montana lawmakers should see to it that jailed or imprisoned Native inmates fully understand their rights instead of being forced to enter guilty pleas on felony charges, a sure ticket to prison.

Three years ago Montana officials announced a federally funded pilot program to help American Indian people navigate the legal system before permanent lockup.

In February 2006, Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., and then-Montana Department of Corrections Bill Slaughter saw to it that an American Indian cultural officer be assigned to work with American Indian inmates in the Great Falls area, a crossroads for the Rocky Boy's, Fort Belknap and Blackfeet reservations.

Bob Anez, Corrections Department spokesman, said the program successfully connected disadvantaged American Indians to people who could help them with pretrial services, such as finding a lawyer before they signed a plea agreement.

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The pilot program ended in December 2007.

Myrna Kuka, who served as the project's cultural adviser in Great Falls, said the program provided a rare opportunity to assist American Indians who have historically been denied adequate legal representation.

"It's just a given across the state," said Kuka, now the Corrections Department's Native American liaison. "Indians aren't knowledgeable about the laws in Montana and the options they have. They're treated differently because most Indians do not speak up."

Anez said cultural advisers like Kuka provide "a friendly face and a friendly voice," for American Indians. Kuka helped connect them with people who could explain their options. Non-Indians might consider putting the shoe on the other foot.

"How would you feel if you were brought into tribal court?" said Anez. "Would you be a little nervous about being before a judge and a system you didn't understand?"

State and federal lawmakers should take a hard look at overzealous correctional systems where decision-makers choose to be tougher on Indians.

Everyone involved with this system should be asking one question: What's wrong with this picture?

(Reach reporter Jodi Rave at 800-366-7186 or jodi.rave@lee.net, or read her blog at www.buffalopost.net.)

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