Judge Jennifer Jermaine of the San Marcos Justice Precinct, a first-generation descendent of the White Earth Nation, only knew her great-grandfather had died after running tests on human remains recovered from a pauper’s grave in Montana. In a discussion on Sept. 6, Jermaine said that his case had never been investigated by law enforcement.
Jermaine’s story is not unlike those shared among Indigenous communities across Arizona. Missing and murdered Indigenous people, particularly women and girls, experience a disproportionate rate of violence in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In a discussion with Madelaine Adelman, a professor of Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University, and as a part of a speaker series titled “Seeking Justice in Arizona”, Jermaine addressed some of these steps she has taken through her legislative and judicial careers. Justice courts, like those where Jermaine serves in Maricopa County, traditionally “handle misdemeanor crimes, protective orders, small claims up to $3,500, and civil lawsuits for amounts of $10,000 and below.”
“One of the biggest problems with missing and murdered Indigenous people is the lack of data,” said Jermaine during the discussion. “We cannot crime map this. We cannot predict where our hotspots are because we don’t have that data.”
To combat this lack of research, Jermaine began collaborating with the Arizona State University Research on Violent Victimization Lab. Together, they worked to “conduct a comprehensive study to identify the prevalence of [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls].”
In her remarks, Jermaine said that Indigenous people in the U.S. have suffered a “systemic cultural genocide,” beginning with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. As illustrated through her work, the justice system is still failing these communities today through unsolved and uninvestigated cases like that of her great-grandfather.
“These issues, as [Jermaine] showed us, are extraordinarily complex and difficult,” said H. L. T. Quan, an associate professor of Justice and Social Inquiry at ASU, in response to Jermaine’s remarks. “If we could snap our fingers and have it our way, what would justice look like?”
The impact of these underrepresented cases covers the entire U.S., although Arizona is highly ranked in missing persons cases for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Likewise, “160 Indigenous Women and Girls in Arizona were known to be murdered between 1976 and 2018,” according to the published findings by ASU’s Research on Violent Victimization Lab.
Although data on crime affecting Indigenous communities is limited, the research done by the ASU ROVV Lab revealed that the murder rate of Indigenous women and girls has slowly increased over the past 40 years.
The aim of the speaker series Jermaine participated in is to help expose ASU students to critical issues of structural inequality using a localized lens. Through the program, students pursuing degrees in justice studies can discuss their experiences and concerns with key changemakers in Arizona.
“Our students have described how meaningful it is to learn that there are ways to incorporate the pursuit of justice into their personal and professional lives,” said Adelman in an email interview. “Some have secured internships and jobs as a result of the series.”
In Jermaine’s opinion, if justice as a whole were to change for the betterment of Indigenous communities, it would look drastically different.
“Justice would look like believing victims when they come forward,” said Jermaine. “Justice would look like arresting and prosecuting perpetrators. Justice would look like taking care of the children who are left behind.”