By JONAH LOSSIAH
One Feather Staff
Imagine working through a docket that consists of 308 cases and talking to 11 different defense attorneys. That’s just Wednesday.
The Office of the Tribal Prosecutor (OTP) is staffed by three individuals. Tribal prosecutors Cody White and Shelli Buckner, and victim/witness coordinator Amy Teesateskie. This team is responsible for the 2,119 criminal cases that were filed during the 2021 fiscal year alone, according to their annual report.
The 75-page docket mentioned was for criminal court on Wednesday, Jan.12. That was one of three days the prosecutors spent in court that week. They may review upwards of 600 cases in a given week of court, according to White. The two other days are spent meeting with judges, police officers, the Police Chief, being called to community meetings, and a number of other tasks that most likely aren’t detailed in their original job description. White said that a consistent rhythm and schedule is a luxury they rarely have.
“The job itself is time-consuming enough, but it gets even more taxing and time-consuming when we have to stop to take care of the little things all throughout the day,” said White.
One of these distractions reared its head during the prosecutors’ first court hearing of the week on Monday, Jan. 10. When a judge assigns a defense attorney during arraignment, the prosecutors won’t know who the attorney is until that moment. If the defense attorney isn’t present, then their hands are tied.
“The hardest part of that specifically is that it puts us in a precarious situation in that now that we’re being asked to potentially take a position on bond. That is going to be an adversarial position, an argumentative position, against the defendant that we can’t necessarily take because the defense attorney who has now been assigned is not there,” said White. “A potential solution that has been suggested is the appointment of council by the magistrate, who then has the responsibility to notify the defense attorney.”
These are the types of changes that the prosecutors are trying to make within the court to expedite the system and make the process easier for all parties.
“The second solution, which we’re a big proponent of, is having a public defender. That person is now being tasked with representing 80 to 90 percent of all criminal defendants … that public defender is in court. That way that person can stand up, irrespective of whether the defender is going to hire their own attorney and have a position so that we can take a position,” said White.
Buckner said a public defender would assist in a multitude of ways.
“Having somebody who’s particularly familiar with how the justice system runs here but also with the community generally. Someone who has cultural awareness would be important. I think you’re going to get that more in a public defender than you would someone who spends part of their time here,” said Buckner.
Another change that just came to the court this year is that the Tribal prosecutors can now try misdemeanor charges in front of try judge.
“What that has done is in the 21 years of existence of this court, the prosecutors have not had the power to call anything for trial,” said White. “I think it’s going to have the greatest impact on special victims crimes such as child abuse cases, child abuse in the second degree, and domestic violence cases…That is going to give the victims of those crimes the opportunity to have their matter handled more swiftly without numerous appearances in court.”
White said that he understands what the community perception is around dismissals. While signing the stack of dismissal documents, he said that it’s not just people walking away from all charges.
“The most common reason is per another plea. They’ve pled guilty to something else, so we’re dismissing some charges in exchange for a plea to something else. A lot of the ones I just sign right there were for compliance with something we asked them to do. With a child abuse in the second-degree charge, having them go complete a substance abuse class, parenting classes, stuff like that. Trying to get them to address some underlying issues that they may have,” said White.
White and Buckner sit in court each week knowing that they will often see the same faces time and time again. White said that this is not something they ignore, but it’s a much more difficult situation than many try to paint.
“A lot of the folks that we see over and over and over again have a common theme. That theme is poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse issues,” said White.
He said that most of these constant offenders come into Tribal Court with charges that have a maximum sentence of 10-30 days. He said that this leaves them with only so many options as attorneys even if they get a conviction.
“I really questioned myself one day. I said, ‘why don’t you commit crimes, Cody?’ I think, is it jail and jail alone that keeps you from committing crimes? If I could commit a crime…and all that happens to me is going to jail. When I get out of jail, I still have my job, I still have my family, I still have my cars, my home, my reputation. If none of those are affected, is jail really scary at that point? My feeling in my gut was no.”
White is a proponent of modifying the current jail structure to offer more opportunities for inmates.
“I’ve asked and hope that we can get inmates to the trades or trades to the inmates. I think that not only is a GED program and educational opportunities for inmates important, but I also think if someone’s going to be in here for 365 days, you can learn apprentice plumbing from someone who’s a certified plumber in 365 days. That way, when you walk out the door, you have a certification as a plumber…now they have a marketing tool, they have the ability to go somewhere,” said White. “We take the knowledge of basic amenities and life functions for granted. Some of these folks have never experienced that. They’ve experienced significant domestic violence or sexual abuse in their home as children. They don’t have a family. This is all they know. So, let’s try to gear that in a different direction and give them something else.”
“Is that going to be an end-all-be-all? No, I’m sure it’s not. But it’s better than what we have.”
The prosecutors said that they try to take part in the solution as much as possible. That week, Buckner led a Domestic Violence Multidisciplinary Team meeting. This is a group that has representatives from the police department, PHHS, Analenisgi, and more. They have been meeting consistently for three years with the goal of giving formal updates on all domestic violence and child abuse cases on the Boundary. They discuss progress of individuals and cases, as well as what needs to be done to work with the victims involved in the cases.
In between meetings, the prosecutors will try to review the docket for the next court date or trial. This is if a patrol officer, investigator, or the Chief of Police doesn’t need to stop in to discuss details of a case or any number of issues. The prosecutors said that they have great communication with the Police Department, especially under the current administration.
White said that he hopes there continues to be a focus on public information and relations moving forward for all the departments in the Justice Center and across the Tribe.
“Every office here that involves such public influence – police, prosecutors, AGs (Attorney General) – we all need PR people. I wish we all had someone that was devoted specifically to public relations and issuing publications to the One Feather and doing all that. I wish we all had that. Because a lot of us just don’t know how or just aren’t good at it,” said White.
Last year, the OTP submitted a request to restructure their office. It would add a new system that focuses on hiring at entry-level positions and promotes an understanding of operations and communication. The OTP annual report lists that there is already a vacancy for a third prosecutor.
“We’re trying to create a tiered system by which we have delineated individual responsibilities. We can start doing more of the case assignment. Start getting more focused. As part of it, too, we also want to add another administrative assistant office staff to be able to help us with communication,” said White.
In the current structure, the prosecutors say they are consistently stretched thin. They are on call at all hours and rarely take time off. On top of the workload, they say it’s the nature of the job that can be challenging.
“Sometimes it can be the most frustrating, stressful, sad, but also the most rewarding job certainly that I’ve ever had. I can say there’s not really ever true downtime. We can have certain 30 minutes in a day that you’re kind of down, but you’re always up …Yeah, I’m not actively sitting behind the computer or reviewing a file, but I’ve done my opening and closing arguments in the shower and on the way to work in the car. I’m always doing something. It’s a rollercoaster really,” said White.
“There have been days in this job that have broken my heart. It is a lot at times. I think the first time I remember just being absolutely devastated was when somebody, they were on pre-trial release, and they were killed in an automobile accident. I felt some sense of responsibility. I know that I wasn’t responsible, but I felt a sense of responsibility. Sometimes it feels like when it rains it pours,” said Buckner.
“There’s a term…it’s called vicarious trauma. It’s not to say that we’re specifically involved in this, but sometimes after a long week at court and speaking with detectives, dealing with child sex abuse cases, videos, interviews with children who have been sexually abused, attending autopsies from drug overdoses or murder victims – you can feel the trauma of these individuals,” said White.
“It’s the hardest and best thing that I’ve ever done. This will be 20 years I’ve been practicing law and it took me like 16 or 17 to actually love doing it. That was when I came over here. This is where I feel like we’re in the position to do the most to help the most people …We both truly love it,” said Buckner
“You have to. You cannot be a prosecutor and hate the job. If you hate the job, you will not be effective and you won’t last long,” followed White.