Working group announces recommendations to strengthen Hawaii’s juvenile justice system

Hawaii Reporter

REPORT FROM THE OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR - HONOLULU – Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, Senate President Donna Mercado Kim and House Speaker Joseph Souki today received a comprehensive package of policy recommendations from Hawaii’s Juvenile Justice Working Group. In August, these four state leaders charged the inter-branch, bipartisan working group with developing policy recommendations to maximize the effectiveness of Hawaii’s juvenile justice system, improve outcomes for youth and families, and ensure policies and practices are grounded in data and research.

The working group answered the charge with 24 recommendations that will reduce recidivism and rehabilitate more youth. These policies will focus juvenile justice system resources on protecting public safety and more effectively using bed space at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility (HYCF); strengthen community supervision and probation practices across the Hawaii islands; increase resources and access to critical mental health and substance abuse; and sustain effective, proven practices.

Currently, HYCF costs taxpayers $199,000 per bed, per year, yet provides little return on this large investment. A recent study revealed that 75 percent of youth exiting HYCF are re-adjudicated or reconvicted within three years of release. Research indicates that, for many youth, residential placement generally fails to produce better outcomes, and can even increase the risk of recidivism when compared with lower-cost, community-based alternatives such as probation, outpatient mental health or substance abuse treatment, and evidence-based programming.

“By reviewing the data, we now have a clear picture of what is driving costs and recidivism within our juvenile system,” Gov. Neil Abercrombie said. “The working group took a hard look at what is and isn’t working, and then developed concrete policy recommendations that will equip our communities to achieve far better outcomes for youth and their families.”

After studying Hawaii data and meeting extensively with stakeholders, the working group found that, while Hawaii has reduced commitments to HYCF by 41 percent in the last decade, there are still many youth who could be more effectively supervised and rehabilitated with the right alternatives in their own communities. For example, many youth were placed in HYCF for a misdemeanor or nonviolent offense. Additionally, the youth being sent to HYCF are staying longer than at any point since 2004: the average length of time has increased 188 percent since 2004.

Importantly, the working group believes that critical services to reduce delinquency in youth, including mental health and substance abuse treatments, are not sufficiently available and resources must be prioritized to building up those services. The working group also found that probation practices varied dramatically by circuit and surveys of probation officers revealed deep concerns about the availability of and access to treatment and community services for youth on probation.

“Hawaii has long sought a more effective juvenile justice system, in which our judges have the tools and sentencing options necessary to reduce recidivism and improve a young person’s chances of success,” Chief Justice Recktenwald said. “The working group’s recommendations provide our state with a roadmap towards a juvenile justice system that more effectively helps youth and their families, while also protecting public safety.”

Under the recommendations, youth convicted of a misdemeanor offense would not be eligible for commitment to HYCF, allowing them to remain on their home island with their families and participate in less costly, more effective community-based alternatives. This approach would permit the state to focus HYCF on youth who require the most serious interventions and to reinvest the savings into community resources across the state.

“These recommendations call for more tools throughout the juvenile justice system that are primarily focused on putting youth back on track to living healthy and safe lives,” said Senate President Donna Mercado Kim. “And strengthening juvenile justice within our communities is the right step for our islands and our youth.”

The complete list of policy recommendations includes:

  • focusing HYCF bed space on more serious juvenile offenders;
  • clarifying and strengthening juvenile parole and reentry practices;
  • clearly defining diversion options for lower-level youth;
  • maximizing probation effectiveness in every circuit;
  • equipping probation officers with tools to manage youth behavior;
  • increasing collaboration with partner agencies; and
  • sustaining effective practices.

“Hawaii has the opportunity to use this inter-branch, bi-partisan process to take huge steps forward with our juvenile justice system,” House Speaker Joseph Souki said. “Moving forward, Hawaii will use secure beds in the most effective way to reduce recidivism, while providing more safe alternatives to incarceration that can keep juveniles with their families and increase their chances of success.”

Taken together, the policy recommendations are projected to accelerate current trends, reducing the HYCF average daily population by 60 percent by 2019. This shift will allow the closure of the Hookipa Makai cottage during the 2015 fiscal year, and save Hawaii taxpayers at least $11 million over the next five fiscal years.

The recommendations follow months of work by the group led by Senior Family Court Judge R. Mark Browning, House Committee on Human Services Chair Rep. Mele Carroll, and Department of Human Services Deputy Director Barbara Yamashita.

The 20-member working group, launched in August, drew members from all three branches of state government, and includes representatives of local government, prosecutors, law enforcement, probation, non-profit service providers, and other key juvenile justice stakeholder groups. The group received technical assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.