After more than a decade as a tribal judge to more than 10 tribes across the West, Raquel Montoya-Lewis, an associate professor in Western's Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, has accumulated a vast body of knowledge about the juvenile-justice system in Indian Country that she knew, if given the chance, could be used to forge real change.
"Every tribe is different and unique. But there are also similarities there, across the spectrum, that need to be addressed, can be addressed, if they are made a priority," she says.
Now, on a national stage, she has gotten her chance. Montoya-Lewis has been appointed to the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice; the 14-member panel represents geographical areas or stakeholder groups, with Montoya-Lewis representing the interests of Native Americans. The committee reports directly to President Obama, Congress, and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
First, the committee will recommend priorities for the few federal resources available. Montoya-Lewis says she will also urge the group to tackle issues such as handling low-level offenses such as truancy and running away from home without detention, as well as the growing epidemic of domestic-minor sex trafficking.
"There is a disproportionate number of Native American youth in our juvenile-justice system. The numbers, overall, may be relatively low, but taken as a percentage, they reflect a system in which Native Americans are overrepresented," she says. "I want to work to understand more about why that is happening."
Montoya-Lewis, an Air Force brat, was born in Spain and moved around the world as her father's assignments required. But no matter which base school she was attending or which language was spoken around her, she always found a sense of home at, the Pueblo of Isleta, her father's tribe, and the Pueblo of Laguna, her grandmother's.
When, after college, she accepted a role as the judge for the Pueblo of Isleta, it was a lesson in reality that has helped shape her future.
"The tribe is exceedingly patrilineal- it just wasn't part of their social makeup to accept judgments from a young woman," she says. "But that very tough experience helped push me into realizing that what I'm really interested in is the systems themselves, from the top down, because that is how I can effect the most change. And this federal appointment will really help me do that."
Montoya-Lewis also serves on the Washington Partnership Council on Juvenile Justice and is a graduate of Georgetown University's prestigious Center for Juvenile Justice Reform. She received her bachelor's degree from the University of New Mexico and both her master's degree in Social Work and juris doctor from the University of Washington. Since 2003, she has taught at Fairhaven College's Center for Law, Diversity & Justice.