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Hawai’i Is Leading the Way for Girls’ Youth Justice

| By y Samantha Wing

For the first time since 1961, there are zero girls incarcerated in Hawai’i, showing it’s possible to have a juvenile justice system focused not on locking girls away but on a robust system of community-based support and rehabilitation. Other states are similarly closing youth detention facilities, and the rest should join those efforts.

Research and experience have consistently found that justice-involved youth — regardless of gender — do better when they are in their communities than when they are incarcerated and are less likely to be rearrested when placed in community-based programs. States can help them do that by redirecting funds from closed detention facilities into community-based alternatives, as Hawai’i has done.

In 2014 Hawai’i's legislature enacted House Bill 2490, aimed at reducing the population of boys and girls in the Hawai’i Youth Correctional Facility (HYCF) by 60 percent by 2019 and redirecting the savings into investments for mental health, substance use treatment, and other interventions.

States including New York, Oklahoma, and California are also making significant efforts to close their youth detention facilities; other states like New Hampshire are considering it.

Failing to invest in or support these youth, and instead locking them up, is expensive, ineffective, and often does more harm than good. One report finds it can cost states an average of $214,620 a year to incarcerate one child. Longer term, youth incarceration can cost the U.S. an additional $8 billion to $21 billion a year in indirect costs, such as the costs of lost educational opportunities and productivity, from the lasting negative effects of being in confinement, according to the Justice Policy Institute.

Closing youth detention facilities won’t harm public safety, and may even improve it. States that sharply reduced youth confinement have been found to have more favorable trends in juvenile crime than states that maintained or increased such confinement. Another report cited “overwhelming evidence that punitive responses” like “heavy reliance on detention and confinement … tend to heighten delinquency, worsen youth outcomes and undermine public safety.”

While boys are much more likely to be locked up than girls, girls are particularly likely to be incarcerated for low-level offenses like truancy or running away that pose no public safety threat. Locking them up for such offenses “actually increase[es] their risk of future legal system involvement,” the Vera Institute has found. And “if every state in the country banned youth incarceration for misdemeanor or lower-level charges, girls’ incarceration would come to a permanent end in most communities.” The same is true for thousands of young boys in state and local juvenile justice facilities charged with technical violations and other low-level offenses.

The juvenile justice system also disproportionately harms young people of color. Black boys, Black girls, and American Indian girls, in particular, are disproportionately locked up. American Indian girls are four times more likely than white girls to be incarcerated, with Black girls facing similarly high rates.

But thanks in large part to states’ efforts, youth incarceration is trending downwards: the number of youths in state and local facilities decreased by 70,000 between 1997 and 2018 (a period when the total population of young people remained about the same). In about the same period, about half of all juvenile justice facilities closed, from 3,047 facilities in 2000 to 1,510 in 2018. Reductions in youth incarceration create savings for states that they can reinvest in communities and provide other services to help justice-involved families thrive.

Hawai’i’s efforts are a model. Following the 2014 legislation, the number of youths incarcerated at HYCF fell 75 percent in just a few years, from about 100 to about 25 on most days. This drop allowed HYCF — composed of 20 structures and 300 acres of land — to be repurposed in 2018 into the Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center. It’s a space for community and family programs, a young adult homeless shelter, a residential vocational training program for youth and young adults, and an assessment center and shelter for young victims of sex trafficking. HYCF officials picture this new vision for the space as a puʻuhonua — a place of healing — ingraining cultural Hawaiian healing practices into their therapeutic programming.

Hawai’i’s success demonstrates that a goal of zero kids incarcerated is achievable, but also that the state can do more. Some treatments and services are still unavailable there, leaving some mental health and other needs unmet. This includes addressing the gap in services for young adults aging out of foster care or HYCF, where more interventions are necessary to ensure they have adequate housing and support to prevent reincarceration in the adult system. And while the state’s number of incarcerated boys is also trending down, 17 are still in HYCF.

Maintaining open facilities, even with a dwindling incarcerated population, uses funds that could be spent elsewhere, including in community-based alternatives to incarceration. Once states close facilities, they can repurpose those funds, along with the land and facilities themselves, to provide useful services to the community. They can also raise revenue by selling the buildings and land for more productive purposes.

It’s also important not to just close facilities by transferring minors to the adult system, which can lead to rearrests and longer-term physical and mental harm. Instead states and localities should focus on reducing the number of youths in confinement by reducing the number of beds available for out-of-home placement — meaning more access to community-based alternatives — and limiting use of secure facilities to only the highest-risk youth or youth with high-level felonies.

Lawmakers should work toward youth justice by closing youth detention facilities and redirecting the money towards education, transit, parks and recreation, and other services that will improve the lives of youth and their families while addressing the root causes of kids’ involvement in the juvenile justice system. The goal to strive for is no incarcerated children and Hawai’i’s experience shows that significant, concrete progress is possible by making smarter investments in our kids. As the Hawai’i State Commission on the Status of Women described it, “This is no fluke or accident. HYCF has been empty for weeks after years of work to replace handcuffs with healing.”

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Samantha Wing