$1 million renovation, expansion planned for Washoe Tribal Justice Center | FirstNationsFocus.com

$1 million renovation, expansion planned for Washoe Tribal Justice Center

Claire Cudahy

First Nation's Focus

The Washoe Tribal Justice Center is located near the Washoe Tribe’s main headquarters at 950 U.S. Highway 395 South in Gardnerville.

GARDNERVILLE, Nev. — The Washoe Tribal Justice Center in Gardnerville is slated for a renovation and expansion project that tribal leaders say will address building deterioration and streamline operations.

In 2015, the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California received an approximately $1-million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to renovate the existing 4,500-square-foot building housing the tribal courtroom and police department, and add an additional 6,000-square-feet.

"It will create more suitable spaces for the different functions of the tribal court," Rob Beltramo, Washoe Tribal Planning Director, said in an interview with First Nation's Focus.

The project is still in the design phase, but the plans are slated to go before the Tribal Council for review soon. Construction will not interfere with regular court proceedings and is expected to wrap up next summer.

Beltramo said the project will extend the life of the existing 30-year-old building, create better space for the departments within the building, and benefit the pubic through a new courtroom, lobby area and multiple waiting rooms.

"It will address major structural and operational deficiencies in the existing building, including deterioration and overcrowding," said Beltramo.

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Funding for a tribal public defender

The expansion of the building will also allow room for a judge's chamber and offices for the court clerk, prosecutor and, perhaps most importantly, public defender — a position the tribe hopes to fill with additional grant money from the U.S. Department of Justice and National Institute of Justice.

Judge Patricia Lenzi, a renowned tribal court judge and member of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, started as the new Washoe Tribal Court Chief Judge at the end of March. She previously worked as the prosecutor for the Washoe Tribe from 2009 – 2012.

"The biggest change between then and now is there is no longer an appointed defense counsel," Lenzi told First Nation's Focus. "The Washoe Tribe used to provide one for its Tribal members, even for non-Washoe defendants, for anyone facing criminal charges, and now it ends up leaving a lot of people without counsel. We need to find funding to change that."

Under the Indian Civil Rights Act, the Tribal court is not required to provide a public defender for someone if he or she is facing up to one year in custody.

But this means that without a public defender, those being charged with violent crimes like rape or child abuse could still only spend up to a year in jail, according to the Washoe Tribe. Potential punishments could be longer for these serious crimes if defense counsel was available for defendants.

"It limits the potential punishment and that's unfortunate," said Lenzi about not having a public defender. "There can be a misconception that the court is doing nothing, when in fact we are doing everything we can within the limits of the law and the limits of what the court has at its disposal."

Additional justice center needs

Lenzi said she would also like to secure grants to provide more services to address alcohol and substance abuse and mental health issues in the community.

"This community, like many other communities, needs to help its members live healthier and substance-free lives. We want to seek funding to make that happen," said Lenzi.

In May, the Washoe Tribe also hired a new Tribal Court Prosecutor, Gary LaRance.

A member of the Hopi Tribe, LaRance previously served as the Associate Judge for the Colorado Indian Tribes' Tribal Court.

"My job is to make sure that cases are processed quickly and fairly and they have their day in court," said LaRance.

LaRance says his department sees 15-25 cases every week, so organization is key.

"I think one of the biggest challenges is we have to clean up all these files and make sure things are organized for court every Wednesday," said LaRance.

The justice department is also seeking grant funding for a document management software to streamline operations — another step forward in what is hoped to be a better, more efficient legal system for the Washoe Tribe.