Elders Panel

The Tulalip Tribes Elders Panel is a diversion program for defendants in the Tulalip Tribal Court. The Elders Panel draws on the wisdom and experience of its elders to help defendants learn what it means to be an honorable member of the Tulalip Tribes. The Elders Panel is run by a committed team of volunteer elders who meet with defendants on a bi-weekly basis. The Elders Panel has had over 80% success with its defendants, whose cases are then dismissed by the Tulalip Tribal Court.

Program Running Length: 2006-present

Location: Tulalip, Washington

Land Characteristics: The Tulalip reservation comprises 22,000 acres in the Puget Sound region of Washington State. The reservation is home to a number of tribes, including the Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Skykomish, and others that signed the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott. The word “Tulalip” is a Salish word that refers to the large bay on the reservation. 

Population: In 2012, the Tulalip Tribes had 4,283 enrolled members. Of these, 2,493 lived on the reservation, while the remaining 1,790 members lived off the reservation. 

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Problem to Be Addressed

The Elders Panel program was developed by a joint effort from tribal court judge Gary Bass, along with the tribal prosecutor at the time, Tom Russell, as well as Donald Hatch Jr., a respected elder from the tribe. The three collaborated to create the elders panel to address the effects of criminal justice involvement among tribal youth. They thought that the elders could help court-involved youth by teaching them about their families and their tribal history.

Target Population

At first, the Elders Panel program served youths between 18 and 21 years of age who were referred by the tribal court. However, the elders soon decided that they wanted to reach out to a wider audience, and the court agreed to expand the eligibility criteria to include Tulalip members up to age 40. The elders and the tribal court realized that adults, as well as youth, can benefit from having elders as role models and learning about their tribe.

Program History

The Elders Panel program was launched in 2006 and has been self-sustaining ever since. The elders are in charge of the program and take pride in their accomplishments. Tribal court staff confer with the Elders Panel and offer advice, but the court does not oversee the program. The program is successful because the elders feel ownership over the program and work to sustain it themselves. The elders are in charge of recruiting new elders and of sustaining its impact. 

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Program Goals and Objectives

The purpose of the Elders Panel is to harness the traditional role of elders in the community and teach young people how to be members of the tribe. Instead of prosecuting tribal youth in court, the program teaches them about the wisdom of elders. According to Gary Bass, the judge who helped to launch the program, participants are able to connect with the elders, discover tribal culture and values, and learn why their criminal behavior is not a part their culture.

Program Design

The tribal court refers cases to the Elders Panel, which consists of six to eight elders who serve on a volunteer basis.  Four elders constitute a quorum. Elders are responsible for recruiting other community members to sit on the panel, which ensures that the members take ownership over the program.

The panel convenes every other Monday from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. The early start ensures that the panel does not encroach on the regular court calendar. The Elders Panel meets with each defendant individually. Defendants are expected to arrive promptly. During sessions, the elders talk with the defendants and ask them to complete certain tasks, such as creating a family tree, attending counseling, or assisting with cultural events. When all the tasks have been completed, the case is referred back to court for a dismissal.

Program Administration

The tribal court clerk attends all Elders Panel sessions, which are held at 7:30 a.m. every other Monday. The clerk helps to set up the room and to transfer case files to the elders. The clerk keeps track of court records and follows up after the elders’ meeting to record the status of the case and communicate it to the court. The clerk receives some extra time off in compensation for the extra work done to coordinating with the elders’ panel. 

Case Flow Process

Eligibility Criteria

The court refers only low-level cases, such as criminal mischief, minor in possession of alcohol, or possession of marijuana. The prosecutor also tries to select defendants who are Tulalip tribal members, as these defendants might be more likely to have a connection with Tulalip elders and roots in the community.

Referral Process

The Tulalip Tribal Court refers young Tulalip members to the Elders Panel and defers prosecution until completion of the program. The court retains jurisdiction throughout the program and will only dismiss the charges if the person completes the program successfully. If the participant is not successful, the case is referred back to the court for an abbreviated trial, in which the police report is read aloud and the judge determines the defendant’s guilt. The defendant consents in advance to this abbreviated trial as part of the agreement to enter the Elders Panel Program.

Participation in the Elders Panel is voluntary. The defendant must request to be referred to the elders and sign an agreement with the prosecutor outlining the rights and responsibilities of participation. Among other things, participants must agree to forfeit the right to a full trial with witnesses.

Supervision and Compliance

At the request of the Elders Panel, the court may require that the participant carry out the following conditions:

  • Appearing on time for the Elders Panel meetings;
  • Writing letters of apology;
  • Satisfactory participation in chemical dependency treatment;
  • Curfew;
  • Either random or as ordered urinalyses or PBT testing;
  • Providing verbal or written documentation of family history;
  • Participation in spiritual activities which may include a walk on the beach, etc;
  • Specialized classes such as anger management or domestic violence classes;
  • Mental health evaluations and treatment;
  • Community service;
  • Education or GED;
  • Employment;
  • Abstain from alcohol or non-prescribed drugs;
  • No new law violations;
  • Being respectful to the elders on the Elders Panel;
  • Sanctions for failure to comply or attend or tardiness at any meeting of the Elders Panel;
  • Any other requirement deemed appropriate by the court.

The Elders Panel is also vested with important powers by tribal law. For example, it may require the defendant to comply with certain conditions, like community service, letters of apology, the creation of a family tree, and spiritual activities, without obtaining a court order. The elders may require that the participant attend meetings on time and behave with respect. They often require that the participant complete a GED and obtain a driver’s license. Generally, the participant is required to attend a meeting with the panel once every two weeks until completion of the program, which can last up to one year. Everything that is said within the meetings is confidential, and the elders must sign an oath of confidentiality. The elders encourage the participant to keep the discussions confidential as well.

Termination Criteria

A participant who commits to the process is expected to attend bi-weekly meetings with the elders. Both lateness and failure to attend the meetings are taken seriously by the panel as a sign of disrespect and can result in sanctions. The panel may recommend a sanction to the court, and the judge can, as a result, impose sanctions for failing to comply with the Elders’ Panel, including short-term jail.

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All of the elders are volunteers. The court clerk assists with managing the Elder Panel’s paperwork and scheduling cases. The only cost for the program is a biweekly breakfast for the elders and participants while the Elders Panel is in session, which is paid for by the tribal court.

Technical Assistance

The tribe created the Elders Panel without any outside assistance. A few tribes have come to observe the Elders Panel in the hopes of replicating the program.

Factors Contributing to Success

Gary Bass, the tribal court judge who launched the Elders Panel program, recommends that the elders should be responsible for recruiting other elders, as this gives them ownership over the program and promotes sustainability. Judge Bass believes that to start this type of program, at least one elder must champion the program in the community, much like Donald Hatch Jr. did for the Tulalip Elders Panel. Mr. Hatch Jr. discussed the plans for an elders’ panel with many members of the community, and went searching for elders with both life experience and commitment, and who would agree to volunteer their time and efforts to this cause. 

Judge Bass also points to the need for justice system stakeholders who believe in rehabilitation, and who aren’t married to the dictates of the Western adversarial model. The Tulalip Tribes benefited from a prosecutor who believed the elders could make an important difference and help tribal members return to a healthy path. The current justice system stakeholders within the Tulalip Tribes continue to support the role played by elders.


The Elders Panel program requires the prosecutor and the court to give up some control over the case and allow the elders to handle it as they think best. Fortunately, all of the Tulalip stakeholders believe in the strength of this idea and have been very supportive of the program. It is possible, however, that other tribes or jurisdictions seeking to develop a similar program may encounter greater opposition from the court system.

Lessons Learned

This kind of program doesn’t have to cost anything. As long as there are elders who are willing to give their time and wisdom to the community, this program will work. The tribe can facilitate the program by providing a place for the elders to meet and snacks for the sessions.


“This is the kind of thing that more tribes should be doing instead of modeling their programs after the Western court system. It’s more in keeping with the culture and tradition of the tribes.” - Judge Gary Bass
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Number Served

The Elders Panel takes approximately two cases per month. Over the last 8 years, they have served between 150-200 participants.

Program Effectiveness

The Elders Panel program does not collect data regarding case outcomes or long-term recidivism. Elders and court staff estimate that approximately 80 percent of participants successfully complete the program and that this rate was even higher before the panel began taking on more difficult cases. Anecdotal reports also indicate that defendants who successfully complete the Elders Panel program typically do not have future court involvement.

In 2009, the Washington State Bar Association honored the Tulalip Elders Panel with its Local Hero Award, in recognition of its contributions to the Tulalip community.

Community Response

According to Judge Gary Bass, Tulalip tribal members support the program because they accept that the elders should be imparting wisdom to the younger generation.

Success Stories

The elders do not approach the work from a punitive perspective. Rather, they seek to reinforce positive behavior and fulfill the role traditionally played by grandparents, who are sometimes absent from the participants’ lives. When some of the participants attend their first meeting, they have trouble making eye contact with the elders. The elders introduce themselves and ask the participants to make eye contact when they speak. At the end of every session they ask the participant to walk around to each elder and shake hands or give a hug. Both the physical connection and the eye contact are important to foster respect for one’s elders and to create trust. For the elders, success is sometimes defined both by graduation from the program and in seeing the participant smile. Around 80 percent successfully graduate from the program as better members of the community.

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