Former judge: Arizona can be like a trail ride

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Aug. 7, 2014

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In her long career as a police officer, then a prosecutor, then a Navajo Nation district court judge, Jennifer Benally saw a lot of troubled souls.

By the time she retired from the bench she had reached this conclusion: "A lot of good people end up in jail."

The reasons are myriad, and systemic. Some of the people who came through her courtroom had undiagnosed mental health issues. Some were unable to get a good education and, unemployed or stuck in a minimum-wage job, turned to crime to make ends meet. Others sought solace in a bottle and made some decisions they might not normally have made.

While most folks who retire from the judicial branch are probably grateful to be out of that milieu, Benally, 56, started thinking about how to create a state where fewer people end up behind bars.

That's why she's running for the Arizona House of Representatives.

"I feel like I still have more to give," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Tuba City.

Benally wants to help mold an Arizona where everyone gets a topnotch education, where mental health care is readily accessible and where there's a decent-paying job waiting for anyone who wants one.

She envisions her Arizona something like the trail ride to Eehaniih Days at Navajo Mountain.

"My husband is from there, and he's one of the ones that rides his horse to the fairgrounds," she explained. "While you're on the trail, everyone cares for each other, everyone looks out for each other."

Get Arizonans moving in the same direction, Benally says, and a similar thing could happen.

"Our legacy, our hard work, everything that we strive for -- the laws we stay up all hours to write -- should be to produce healthy, educated, well-adjusted children," she stated.

The main thing she sees lacking in Arizona's schools is parent involvement.

"We need an initiative to encourage parents to spend time with their children," she said. "That's where learning starts."

The mentally ill and veterans -- and the two groups overlap considerably because of post-traumatic stress -- are the other populations the state has neglected, Benally believes.

"As a judge, it was really hard to get someone into treatment," she said. "People end up incarcerated instead of getting the help they need."

As for veterans, "I see no reason why an elderly veteran should be living without running water and electricity," she said. "The systems are in place already, they just need tweaking."

Benally is a bit less magnanimous when it comes to immigration.

"You watch the news out of Phoenix, and it breaks your heart," she sighed. "Those little feet (of immigrant children) lying in cots. But we can't get completely caught up in emotion on this issue. We have people in this country who don't have jobs. We have people in this country who are hungry. We have people in this country who are illiterate.

"Let's take care of our own people first, and then, little by little, we can address the people who have come here for a better life."

To help anybody, Benally believes, Arizona must first bolster its economy so there will be enough jobs to go around.

"We need to bring in more corporations," she said, "but we also need to focus on small business. Those people who were laid off, can they be retrained so they can go into business for themselves?

"People who are already in business, like the food vendors on the Navajo Nation, could they benefit from a course at NTU (Navajo Technical University)? Maybe there's something they could be doing a little bit better to bring in more money. It comes down to education again."

Having watched environmental regulations play out at Navajo Generating Station, Benally believes damage to the environment should be weighed against jobs and potential benefit to communities. But one thing she doesn't believe in sacrificing is sacred sites.

"We have to preserve our historical sites, our sacred sites, to pass on to our children," said the candidate, who is Zuni Edgewater Clan born for Tangle Root Clan. "If we give away everything, what are we going to have to hold sacred?"

Benally is one of three candidates for the Arizona House in District 7, all of whom are Navajo Democrats. The other two are incumbent Albert Hale and Navajo Nation Council Delegate Joshua Lavar Butler (Tó Nanees Dizí).

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