PFJ's Tribal Defense Team in the News

PABLO — When Ann Miller heard on a Friday that space in a treatment center opened up for an incarcerated community member seeking help, she thought it would be nearly impossible to get him there in time.

The client, Miller said, would have to get to treatment by the next day, or his bed would be given to someone else. But first, the client would need a physical exam and to receive authorization from the court to release him.

Miller, the managing attorney in the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Defenders Office, said making these arrangements in less than 24 hours would be difficult under any circumstance, but on a Friday, when most offices are closed, the task seemed almost inconceivable.  

Miller manages about 50 clients at a time. In the past, she said, when a client asked to be connected to services, she’d give them a phone number and essentially wish them luck.

This time, though, Miller knew exactly who to call for help — Aaron Lee.

By Saturday, Lee had not only scheduled a physical for the client. He also arranged transportation to the exam, secured authorization from the court and organized a ride for the client to get to treatment.

“It was really amazing,” Miller recalled, adding that the client is doing well.

First contact

Lee, who is Navajo, is employed by the tribal defenders office through a fellowship offered by Partners for Justice, a national organization that provides support services to people facing criminal charges. By connecting clients to services, the organization helps lower incarceration rates and recidivism.

Founded in 2018 in Delaware and California, Partners for Justice has since expanded to 27 locations in the U.S. and expects to operate in close to 20 states by the end of next year.

On the Flathead Reservation, Partners for Justice primarily serves tribal members involved in the criminal legal system, and Lee said his first contact with clients is normally in tribal jail.

When he visits people who are incarcerated, Lee said he will often talk through their case and let them know when and how they may be released. He also reassures people facing charges that he will be in the courtroom when their case is reviewed and offers to connect them to other services in the community. Lee said that face-to-face interaction in jail is really important in building relationships and establishing trust.

“I try to think about it as if I were in jail,” Lee said. “I just know how lonely and cold it can be. And coming down from substances is another factor a lot of people don’t take into account. You can feel those depressive moods, and it can feel like there’s no hope. Most of the time, I see people just break down and cry.”

While health care, affordable housing, mental health and employment services are available on the reservation, resources like these aren’t always easy to access — especially for someone who is incarcerated, living in poverty or experiencing housing instability.

In a 2022 Community Health Assessment, members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes said their top concern was a lack of affordable housing on the reservation, followed by a lack of access to health care.  

And while some clients may have family members who can help them navigate barriers and access services, Lee said, “a lot of times, those doors are closed by the time they get (to us).”

Melanie Nolan, another advocate on the Flathead Reservation, said she’s helped clients access health care.

“Let’s say someone needs a surgery,” she said. “That’s something they need to schedule. So to have someone sit down with them, figure out what doctor works with their insurance, make the call, schedule the appointment, remind them of the appointment and take them to the doctor — is sometimes all they really need. But those extra 10 or 11 steps in between are the things that stop them from getting the care they really need.”

Emily Galvin-Almanza, executive director of Partners for Justice, said nationwide, 75 to 90% of public defender clients have needs beyond their case that a public defender can meet, if they are equipped to do so.

“Of those public defender clients, almost nobody has just one need,” she explained. “A lack of housing can make finding a job harder. So when we put all these services as a one-stop shop in a place where clients are already going, it’s very convenient and allows clients to take advantage of more opportunities than they would if they had to go to eight different providers, instead of one Aaron Lee.”

Galvin-Almanza said on average, Partners for Justice advocates help clients meet between two and seven different goals. Lee, she said, holds the record, helping clients with, on average, six different services at a time.

Lee has helped clients access affordable housing, transportation and medical care. He’s helped people apply to jobs, reinstate their driver's licenses, restore data services to their phone, receive drug and alcohol treatment, recover a vehicle and more.

Tribal innovation

Partners for Justice has had advocates on the Flathead Reservation for 2½ years. And while the Flathead Reservation is the only tribal community the organization serves, Galvin-Almanza said Partners for Justice is eager to partner with more tribal defenders' offices.

“Because tribes have the right to create their own systems of accountability and justice in this space, they are not beholden to waiting for a recalcitrant state legislature to do something smart on issues that impact their members,” she explained. “They have freedom to innovate, and we consider this a vital innovation in the public safety space.”

Miller said the collaboration with Partners for Justice is unique in that services are driven by client needs rather than determined by a court.

“If people have been treated fairly, win or lose in their case, they’ll be more successful,” she said. “And that means treating people with dignity.”

It’s evident community members have benefited from the approach. Riley Pavelich, who works for the Bail Project — a national organization that provides bail assistance — said that of the dozens of locations the organization serves, the Flathead Reservation boasts the highest rate of connecting clients to services.

“It’s because of this collaboration between (Partners for Justice) and the tribal defenders office,” she said.

Every Monday and Wednesday, Lee and Nolan set up shop at tribal court. Nolan sits behind a booth, offering free ChapStick and naloxone, a medication to reverse opioid overdoses, as well as brochures advertising different services.

Lee leans against the doorway of a tribal courtroom on the Flathead Reservation. Peering inside, he listens closely and scribbles notes to himself as the judge gives recommendations to the accused.

Later, he would intercept family members of the incarcerated in the hallway to see if they might be interested in accessing services.

Lee, who has a background in psychology, said he never would have imagined he’d end up working in a courtroom. But, he said, there’s no better feeling than seeing a formerly incarcerated client come to his office looking happy and healthy.

“It’s great to see someone doing really well,” he said. “Especially when people in the community had written him off saying, ‘This guy is bad news.’ It’s like, no he’s not. No one understands his story, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Originally Published in The Missoulian at

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