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Diversion Programs Draw Excitement, Implementation an Ongoing Issue

Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Diversion programs are an alternative to incarceration. The idea is to divert people away from prisons and into treatment programs. They’re being used in a growing number of communities across the country and they’re generating some excitement here in Hawai?i. HPR’s Ku?uwehi Hiraishi reports.

When Matthew Taufetee was released from prison in the 90s, he turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with life after prison. He now runs a halfway house in Palolo Valley that helps ex-cons like himself reenter society. The organization is called First LAP.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
O'ahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC) in Kalihi.

“L-A-P is an acronym for Life After Prison. Like in any race, you gotta pace yourself,” says Taufatee, “So the first 30 days, they’re not allowed to go anywhere. I get them connected to church, alcoholics anonymous meetings, we get them jobs. I just counsel and mentor them to deal with all the things that lead them back to the alcohol and drugs.”

Taufetee sits on the state’s task force for criminal justice reform. In the task force’s meeting yesterday, he was shocked to learn the state pays $152 a day to house a prisoner. Much higher than what he pays to house someone at his facility.

“The cost of treating somebody might be $10,000 a year, but the cost of incarcerating is getting to be $50,000,” says Justice Michael Wilson, who chairs the task force.

Diverting low-level, non-violent offenders into community-based behavioral health treatment centers could help the state reduce the $178 million a year it spend on corrections and alleviate overcrowding in Hawai?i’s jails and prisons. 

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Community members join the state's Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform to hear an update on justice reinvestment opportunities for Hawai'i.

“The fewer people we actually have to incarcerate, it lowers the cost of the overall system,” says Senator Clarence Nishihara, “Also it means fewer lives are wrecked by being incarcerated unnneccesarily.”

Sen. Nishihara chairs the Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs. He also sits on the task force and solicited the expertise of Bree Derrick with the New York City-based Council of State Government’s Justice Center.

“We’re seeing a lot of states really move to doing behavioral health at the front end of the system,” says Derrick, “So really partnering between law enforcement and community behavioral health care providers to sort of divert people who have mental illness or substance use needs out of the system at the front end.”

Derrick’s organization works with states on criminal justice reform through an approach called “justice reinvestment”. The focus is on eliminating inefficiencies and reinvesting savings in strategies that decrease crime and reduce recidivism.

Credit Council on State Government's Justice Center
Council on State Government's Justice Center
In 2012, Governor Neil Abercrombie signed into law two justice reinvestment policies (SB 2776 & HB 2515) that sought to alleviate overcrowding and save millions of dollars.

“Implementation is the crux of the issue,” says Derrick, “It’s sort of where the rubber meets the road.”

Hawai’i first carried out justice reinvestment reforms back in 2012. The reforms were projected to reduce demand of more than 1,000 prison beds and save Hawai?i $130 million by 2018.

“One of the big policies that we expected would really reduce your prison population was the implementation of pretrial risk assessment. And the risk assessment tool was implemented,” says Derrick. 

Credit Council on State Government's Justice Center
Council on State Government's Justice Center
Despite the decline in the number of incarcerated individuals, the prisons remain more than 1.5 times over capacity. Prison population figures (2009 - 2015) are courtesy of Hawai'i's Department of Public Safety, end-of-month population reports. Operational capacity as of May 31, 2018.

“But what we had noticed is that, we had predicted a much greater percentage of individuals would score low-risk on that tool and be good candidates for release. And what we?re seeing is that that?s not really playing out.”

According to Derrick, the state’s incarcerated population dropped by about 550 inmates from 2005 to 2017. Hawai?i’s prison and jail populations are declining but still well over capacity.

Update on Hawai'i's Criminal Justice System by CSG Justice Center by HPR News on Scribd

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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