Hawaii will soon have a women’s court in an effort to reduce recidivism

Earlier this month, Governor David Ige signed the House Bill 2421creating a three-year pilot program for the state’s first women’s court.

The bill was supported by the Women’s Prison Project, a 31-member coalition that has worked closely with the Hawaii Women’s Legislative Caucus on several bills aimed at helping incarcerated women.

This bill allocates nearly $700,000 from the state’s general fund to address the distinct needs of women by implementing gender-responsive programs, with the goal of reducing recidivism and diverting participants from incarceration. .

The three-year pilot program for a women’s court in the 1st Circuit of Oahu allocated $695,236 to the judiciary for implementation and positions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Women eligible for the program will have access to services such as trauma and mental health treatment, domestic violence prevention and life skills training.

Although eligibility criteria have yet to be defined, Chief Justice of the First Circuit Mark Browning, who originally proposed the idea for the program, said eligibility could include women who are non-resident offenders. violent, who have evidence or history of mental health and/or substance abuse issues or a history of marginalization that has pushed them into criminal paths.

Temporary positions for the program will include a social worker supervisor, four social workers, a circuit court clerk, and a court clerk position, but may involve more positions depending on availability and funding.

Browning said he asked 1st circuit judge Trish Morikawa to lead the pilot program on Oahu. The goal is to launch before the end of this year, and Browning expects at least 30 women to be on the pitch by early 2023.

“I have no doubt this program will be successful,” Browning said.

Besides the obvious life-changing benefit of the women involved in the program, as well as the lives of any children they have, Browning said it would save taxpayers money because the cost of l incarceration is much higher than being able to step in and provide gender-specific types of probation and services.

The gender approach has already proven itself on Oahu. Last month, for the first time in its history, the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility announced that it would not currently incarcerate any girls.

This can be attributed to the girls court on Oahu, one of the first in the country, launched in 2004 by the family court.

Browning, who served as the presiding judge of the juvenile drug court for eight years and a district family court judge since 1997, was not involved in the formation of the girls’ court, but was involved in the discussion on the why it was needed.

Browning said the data found in their research for the women’s court showed that women’s pathways into the criminal justice system were entirely different from those of men, and that this was consistent with what was found for the court for girls compared to boys. The data also showed that for the majority, women and girl offenders were non-violent.

Other states that have launched similar successful programs include: Delaware, Nevada, Minnesota, Ohioand several others, according to Browning.

Over the past 40 years, the number of women incarcerated in the United States has increased by nearly 500%, according to Data provided by The Sentencing Projecta Washington-based research and advocacy center, growing from a total of 26,326 in 1980 to 152,854 in 2020.

Over the past 40 years in Hawaii, the number of women in prison has increased by 1,941% and the number of women in prison has increased by 1,836%, according to Data provided by the Vera Justice Institutean independent national non-profit research and policy organization.

number of women in hawaii prisons
Women now account for nearly one in four prison admissions, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Courtesy of the Vera Justice Institute

Representative Linda Ichiyama, the bill’s lead sponsor, said that in addition to the significant increase in the number of women in Hawaii’s jails and prisons, women in Hawaii also have a high recidivism rate of 50 percent. .

“The data has shown us that the system is not working,” Ichiyama said, adding that it also shows that women’s pathways to engaging with justice are often caused by underlying trauma, sexual abuse in childhood and being part of a household experiencing domestic violence. .

“Until we really address the underlying root trauma, it won’t resolve all the symptoms caused by the trauma,” Ichiyama said.

Erin Harbinson, director of Criminal Justice Research Institutea research organization established by the Hawaii state judiciary, said there are various reasons why women’s incarceration rates have increased, but a large part is due to sentencing changes.

Harbinson said if those already incarcerated have to serve longer sentences as more people arrive, it will ultimately lead to population growth in the facility because no one is getting out. Another of the main issues driving the increase in the incarceration rate for women, according to Harbinson, was tougher sentences for drug-related crimes.

Lorenn Walker, director of Hawaii Friends of Restorative Justicewho was incarcerated for a short time as a minor for possession of marijuana, said that because of her experience, she understands the social issues that bring people into the justice system.

Walker, who is also a member of the Women’s Prison Project and previously served as Hawaii’s deputy attorney general for a decade, fully supports the Women’s Court agenda, but is concerned about the bill’s language relating to “detection of substance addiction “. She hopes the court will consider harm reduction approaches, or rather “detection of substance use disorders”.

Walker said she trusted the judgment of Browning and Morikawa, but felt uncomfortable due to issues in other jurisdictions where individuals ended up with harsher drug-related punishment. .

“It’s sad that our society and our culture, instead of dealing with these issues that are clearly social in nature, we’ve dealt with them in a criminal way,” Walker said. “We punish people for substance abuse disorders.”

Another social issue, according to Walker, is the “agency” that women tend to lack, resulting in many women seeing themselves as not having control or freedom to do their own thing. choice.

“I hope this program will help women see that they still have a choice,” she said.

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