Hawaii: Reinvest in Justice

The DOJ grant programs hardly embrace an abolitionist philosophy, but there’s the potential here, now, at this unique turn in their state’s history, for Hawai’i to make some progress in that direction. As the author of this letter argues, less recidivism means less crime and victimization – which we should all be shooting for. We need to do what we can to help them bring their people home and keep them there – the rest of us have everything to gain from their success. From them we can learn how to safely bring our people home, too…

– Peg, Arizona Prison Watch

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State should reduce reliance on incarceration

Honolulu-Star Advertiser
Island Voices: Editorial

January 26, 2011
By Marilyn Brown

The decision by Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Department of Public Safety Director Jodie Maesaka-Hirata to return Hawaii inmates to the state hopefully signals the end of a wasteful and dangerous experiment in mass incarceration, enabled by a deeply flawed policy of transferring prisoners to the mainland. Transfer increased our reliance on expensive prison beds rather than cost-effective community sanctions for non-serious offenders.

It wasn’t always so.

In the 25 years between 1982 and 2007, the proportion of law breakers who were incarcerated versus those supervised in the community grew by 45 percent, according to the Pew Center. We do not have a corrections strategy; rather, we have a prison strategy. But our state can create an integrated, cost-effective, evidence-based response to address crime while helping ex-prisoners re-enter the community safely. In fact, we already have many of the basic ingredients for such a system.

In 2002, Hawaii created the Interagency Council on Intermediate Sanctions (ICIS), consisting of talented members of state and county government agencies, researchers and community members. ICIS works toward establishing “best practice” principles to further enhance the use of intermediate sanctions, as well as reduce recidivism in all parts of the criminal justice system. As a result, Hawaii has a data-driven framework to create effective strategies to respond to offenders, including a statewide information system containing critical needs and risk assessment data.

Many of the initiatives to address Hawaii’s criminal justice populations already exist. Developed in Hawaii, the nationally acclaimed HOPE probation program diverts offenders from prison while reducing recidivism. Innovations such as drug courts have been extremely successful in addressing drug-driven crime.

In Hawaii County, the Big Island Drug Court has demonstrated success with the serious offenders most at risk of going to prison. Government and community-based partnerships such as Maui’s BEST Program and the Going Home Program are examples of evidence-based approaches to reducing recidivism. And, reducing recidivism translates directly into more public safety.

With a sufficiently funded and integrated continuum of correctional services, Hawaii will have a cost-effective means of addressing crime that will reduce our reliance on incarceration and its devastating effects on communities.

In a recent study, a colleague and I analyzed the costs and benefits of incarcerating drug offenders released from Hawaii prisons in 2006. We found that the crime -reduction benefit from incarcerating these 197 drug offenders over an average sentence of 39 months was $16.8 million. However, the total costs associated with their incarceration were estimated to be $32.5 million. In other words, Hawaii lost approximately $15.7 million by incarcerating these 197 drug felons.

There’s even more to it than that, however, because when all social costs to families and communities are computed, the tab comes to $102 million. Diverting just half of this group to treatment would have saved $14.4 million for the state alone, growing to $57.5 million with all social costs included.

Hawaii has both the capacity and the motivation to reprioritize prison dollars toward a sound correctional strategy. We should also take advantage, as have nearly a dozen states, of technical assistance for “Justice Reinvestment” policies. As a Justice Reinvestment site, our state would receive technical assistance to generate correctional savings that can be reinvested into more effective approaches to public safety. The Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance is soliciting letters of interest from states interested in implementing Justice Reinvestment strategies.

There is broad support for Gov. Neil Abercrombie to apply for this opportunity for our state. Now is the time to reinvest in justice — and Hawaii’s people.

Marilyn Brown, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

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