Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and mixed-race youth are disproportionately represented in Hawaii’s juvenile justice system, a recent study concludes.

The statewide analysis found that Hawaiian, Samoan and Filipino youth “fare worse than Caucasians at the stages of arrest,” a pattern that continues as the young people move through detention, probation and protective services. The problem seems to be related to racism and discrimination and how mixed-race people are treated in society.

The report makes a series of recommendations for improving equality in the juvenile justice system, including calling for greater collaboration among agencies, anti-bias and youth-development training, and better data collection, monitoring and analysis.

Hawaiian and Pacific Islander youth, for example, could benefit from cultural-based programs and services rather than detention, while adult mentors could serve as role models.

The report was released this summer by the state’s Office of Youth Services. OYS operates facilities like the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility in Kailua, which has seen positive improvements in recent years following a period of court monitoring that was ordered after reports of abuse of wards surfaced.

“The juvenile justice system has major holes and gaps that the youth fall through, and we really need to fill them or we will see the same results years from now,” said Karen Umemoto, the lead author of the report and a professor at the UH Manoa Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

Gaps In The System

State lawmakers will be briefed on the juvenile justice system report at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Capitol. A community presentation follows at 6:30 p.m. at Harris United Methodist Church. Both events are open to the public.

Besides the legislative hearing Wednesday, OYS is initiating a “Civil Citations Task Force” in each county to help turn arrested youth away from courts and into programs “that focus on healing and family strengthening,” as OYS put its.

The new report, titled Disproportionate Minority Contact in the Hawaii Juvenile Justice System, 2000-2010, is described by its sponsors as “the first comprehensive study of racial disparities in 17 years.”

As with most academic studies, the juvenile justice system report is pretty wonky. It’s loaded with text, charts, tables, graphs and appendices filling 130 pages.

But the report’s main conclusion is clear: When it comes to Hawaii’s juvenile justice system, there seems to be “a different dynamic” for white and Asian kids who get in trouble as compared with Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and mixed-race kids, with the latter group falling through gaps in the system.

“These gaps are in what we call the continuum of care, and in the early stages of juvenile youth involvement in the the system, there isn’t a close enough collaboration between the courts, the schools and community-based organizations,” said Umemoto. “So, many youth are not connected at the early stages of getting into trouble with services that could help them. Then what happens is many of them get into more serious problems, committing more serious offenses or repeating them.”

The young people then end up being placed on probation or in protective supervision. By that stage, Umemoto said, it’s very difficult to reverse course because there is a lack of adequate services for kids with substance abuses or mental health problems.

“What happens is that they end up being arrested while on probation, and then the chances of getting a negative court decision are doubled or increased four-fold,” she said.

Likely Causes

The report looked at “systemic, programmatic and behavioral factors” that may have contributed to “the disproportionality and disparity.”

Nationally, according to the report, analysis of juvenile justice systems “has substantiated that race, ethnicity, class, and gender converge in the juvenile justice system to confine more youth of color than can be explained merely by criminal activity.”

A major contributing factor is racial bias — direct and indirect — among law enforcement and justice officials. Related to that is significantly different treatment given to youth who come from two-parent families rather than one-parent families.

In Hawaii, white and East Asian (Chinese, Japanese and Korean) youth were more likely to receive “milder outcomes of counsel and release even when the severity of the offense and prior records are accounted for.”

Local research sometimes aligned with mainland findings, and sometimes did not. Hawaii, of course, has a very racially and ethnically mixed population.

But, as with Native Americans and Alaska Natives, “the legacy of colonization” can result in socio-economic disadvantages and related problems like child abuse, drug use, depression and social marginalization. That leads to overrepresentation in prisons and correctional facilities.

The report is chock full of statistics to back up its conclusions. Here’s just two:

• Native Hawaiian youth had almost double the percentage of having a parent with a criminal history than non-Hawaiian youth in the same sample, 40.1 percent compared with 21.8 percent.

• In one three-year period, Samoans received the longest confinement sentences (200 days) — though there were just eight cases involving Samoans — followed by mixed-race youth (172 days), Hawaiians (150 days) and whites (113 days).

Familiar Pattern

As the report notes, the Hawaii findings are similar to the treatment of minority youth on the mainland.

The Hawaii report also echoes the findings of a report released by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in 2010 that found Native Hawaiians were more likely to be sent to prison and for longer periods of time than nearly every other racial or ethnic community in Hawaii.

Among other ideas, OHA recommended cultural-based programs to help Hawaiian inmates and those reintegrating to society.

Sen. Will Espero, chair of the Senate committee that oversees the state’s correctional facilities, will be at the legislative briefing Wednesday.

“The issue of minorities in the justice system, whether adult or juvenile, has historically been around forever,” he said. “We’ll see what the authors of the report have to say and hear from the departments involved and then go from there.”

Espero said it was possible the report could lead to legislation or other changes aimed at improving the juvenile justice system. But Espero said he has also seen progress in improving conditions at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, which is effectively a prison for troubled teenagers.

“They are doing good things at HYCF,” he said.

Still, Umemoto warned that if kids keep getting into trouble they will need residential services, which she said “are inadequate in this state.”

“Then, HYCF becomes the provider of last resort,” she said. “We have too many kids in HYCF that should not be there.”

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