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How Hawaii reduced the number of girls in prison to zero

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Hawaii reached the milestone of no more girls in its single juvenile detention center earlier this year — a first in state history, officials say.

It was a jubilant moment for the facility’s administrator, Mark Patterson, who has spent nearly eight years working to reduce the juvenile detention population.

a decade ago, more than 100 adolescents were incarcerated in the facility. When Patterson arrived two years later, the number had fallen by about half, according to data from the State Department of the Attorney General and Office of Youth Services.

For Patterson, who came to juvenile detention after running Hawaii’s Women’s Community Correctional Center, reducing the girl population required a reduction in the number of youth put on probation, as offenders were often sent to his facility. It also meant addressing the fact that they were the “most vulnerable of the at-risk groups” and had often suffered severe trauma related to things like sexual exploitation, abuse at home or exposure to drug addiction, he said.

“When I’m talking about zero girls in the system, it’s because it was a conscious effort to focus on a particular profile of girls in our systems,” Patterson said.

Patterson and other state officials and advocates of juvenile justice reform have set a goal to prevent at-risk youth from engaging in behaviors that send them into the system, an effort that, when implemented broadly, has helped to reduce the overall female probation sentences increased by more than two-thirds from 2014 to 2021, the State Attorney General’s Department said. Experts say Hawaii can serve as a model for other states to introduce alternatives to the more traditional punitive justice models for girls and boys.

A new path

Since 2001, the number of girls in residential placements at the national level, including correctional facilities and shelters, has declined, according to 2019 data of the criminal justice reform group the Sentencing Project. But while girls make up about 15% of youth incarcerated, they make up about a third of those incarcerated for low-level offenses such as truancy or curfew violations — a problem Hawaii has faced head-on.

With Project KealahouHawaiian for “the new path,” the state’s Department of Health aspired to address common trauma in “at-risk” girls through community-based services such as peer mentoring and therapeutic intervention aimed at restoring family relationships.

The six-year, federally funded effort was based on a previous program, Girl’s Court, that sought to address the needs of at-risk girls and juvenile offenders by providing them with a supportive environment and positive role models, including in recreational settings. Project Kealahou also used youth development programs to offer activities, such as hula dance groups and paddle lessons, as part of its “trauma-informed care” — a model that recognizes the impact trauma has had on incarcerated youth and how coping mechanisms and criminal activity often cross.

Because the power dynamics in prisons can resemble abusive relationships, trauma-informed care seeks to ensure that incarcerated adolescents do not relive harmful experiences from the pastand to that end it offers guidelines that seek mutual respect among youth, health care providers, and justice system officials, as well as collaboration between therapists and correctional officers on how to deal with inmates.

For the first time in state history, Hawaii has no girls in its only juvenile detention facility.Tia Hartsock

The approach resulted in “significant improvement” among the incarcerated youth in terms of depression levels, emotional problems, and mood scores, prompting state lawmakers to extend the funding of the program.

Tia Hartsock, who served as the director of Project Kealahou, said she and other officials were studying the files of at-risk girls to help Patterson and others. determine where incarcerated youth “fell through the holes” in education, mental health and other areas and to prevent this from happening in the future.

“I was thinking, how badly did we have to fail at every touchpoint of these kids to land them in jail?” she said.

A place of healing

Patterson used the information to emphasize on curing the detained girls through therapeutic programs.

He called in the help of the Vera Institute, a national non-profit organization working to reduce the incarceration of girls. Searching state records, they found that girls were largely incarcerated for felonies or probation violations such as running away from home, truancy and petty theft — behaviors often linked to trying to survive on the streets, said Hannah Green, a program manager for a Nun’s Initiative. for-profit organization to end the incarceration of young girls.

Kimberly Takata, who works as a counselor at the nonprofit Pu’a Foundation, which aims to help the girls in juvenile detention make the transition out of prison, trains previously incarcerated young women to be mentors for the girls as part of the rehabilitation attempt.

Born while her mother was in juvenile detention in the 1980s, she said she suffered sexual trauma at a young age and began to numb her shame with drugs and run away from home before being incarcerated there herself.

“And I had to wear that alone and not say anything to anyone because I was so ashamed. … So that’s where survival mode comes in. You’re on the street and you do whatever it takes to make money,’ Takata explained.

Takata, who has witnessed the changes in the state’s juvenile justice system, said the support system for the girls has been transformative.

“People now understand trauma,” she said, adding, “This is my passion, to help the youth and women because I was there. … It’s just a great full circle.”

Under Patterson’s leadership, which included advocating for more government spending on the juvenile detention center, the 500-acre estate at the base of Olomana Mountain was transformed into a sprawling rehabilitation-focused facility.

Where there was once only a prison and a school for incarcerated youth, the recently renamed Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center now offers on-site vocational training programs, a center for sex trafficking victims, a homeless shelter for adolescents and opportunities for young people to raise livestock. keep and keep.

“When you actually work and work land and produce a product, and then eat it or take care of the community, there’s a sense of value of who you are and where you fit into the community,” Patterson said. “If you touch the land, the land touches you, and all that junk in you will turn into the land so you can be whole again.”

Kawailoa Wellness Center for Youth and Families
The Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center is now a sprawling rehabilitation-focused facility. Tia Hartsock

Model for the nation

In addition to its work in Hawaii, the Vera Institute has made similar efforts in New York City, Maine, and Santa Clara, California, all of which reached zero girls for time periods The past two years. One of the nonprofit’s key strategies has been to work with government leaders and communities on how best to disrupt youth access to the justice system.

“I think any state can replicate it,” Green said. “It just takes the intention, it takes the dedication, it takes the focus.

Green also said she thinks states can take similar steps with incarcerated boys, provided they focus on: gender specific conduct that could lead to jail time, such as feeling pressured to exhibit “macho” behaviors that can translate into violent crimes such as assault and theft. Vocational programs also help male adolescents overcome contributing problems such as drug use and build their confidence, said Melissa Waiters, whose nonprofit organization, Kinai ‘Eha, helps youth in Hawaii prison and elsewhere achieve GED degrees and find employment. found in fields such as construction and even medicine.

The cost of keeping young people out of prison pales in comparison to the cost of missed opportunities and job opportunities for those incarcerated, she said.

“We need to help these children because they are our future,” she said. “And so they just need some support. They just need some guidance.”

Nate Balis, who works on juvenile justice reform at the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation, said Hawaii’s example could help shift the national mindset away from jail time for troubled youth. The key, he said, is to focus on shrinking the probation population and creating alternative pathways for youth with vocational and other development programs.

“We have to do both,” Balis said.

Patterson, who recently applied for a grant that would partially fund an on-campus mental health program for minors, said Hawaii has provided the proof.

“We’re not saying we’ve solved a social problem,” Patterson said. “We’re saying the treatment and system we’ve put together for care is working.”

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