Sad, troubling, sobering.

That’s how Clyde Namuo, CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, describes the conclusions of a new report on Native Hawaiians in Hawaii’s criminal justice system.

“It shows what many of us have feared was happening — that the justice system was treating Native Hawaiians in a disparaging way,” Namuo said at a press conference Tuesday. “They are more likely to be sent to prison and for longer periods of time than nearly every other racial or ethnic community in Hawaii.”

The report, titled “The Disparate Treatment of Native Hawaiians in the Criminal Justice System,” was some three years in the making.

OHA’s research collaborators include the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Georgetown Law School and the Washington, D.C., based-Justice Policy Institute.

The key findings include the following:

• Native Hawaiians make up almost 40 percent of the population in Hawaii’s prisons and jails.

• They make up the highest percentage of people incarcerated in out-of-state facilities.

• They receive longer prison sentences and are sentenced to longer probation terms than most other racial or ethnic groups.

• Hawaii has the largest proportion of its population of women in prison, with Native Hawaiian women comprising a disproportionate number.

• Native Hawaiians do not use drugs at drastically different rates from people of other races or ethnicities, but Native Hawaiians go to prison for drug offenses more often.

• Once released from prison, Native Hawaiians experience barriers that “prevent them from participating in certain jobs, obtaining a driver’s license, voting, continuing education, obtaining housing and keeping a family together.”

“In short, the results are clear,” said Namuo. “Native Hawaiians are being treated different than everyone else. We need solutions.”

An Election Issue

The report, which grew out of an OHA research project supported by a 2009 state House Concurrent Resolution, was released in the midst of a major election cycle and as the Akaka bill on federal recognition for Native Hawaiians awaits a vote in the U.S. Senate.

Honolulu also recently elected a new city prosecutor and the state has a new Supreme Court chief justice.

Namuo said he had “every confidence” that Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald would be responsive to OHA’s report, while Richard Naiwieha Wurdeman, a criminal defense attorney and president of the Native Hawaiian Bar Association, said the report’s findings need to be addressed “head on” in the gubernatorial election.

Wurdeman pointed out that Native Hawaiians are “seriously underrepresented” on the bench.

Attention by the gubernatorial candidates seems likely. An OHA-sponsored debate between the governor candidates is set for Oct. 12.

(OHA is an independent state agency that advocates for the betterment of conditions of Native Hawaiians. Its board of trustees is elected by Hawaii voters.)

Republican James “Duke” Aiona is a former city prosecutor attorney and state judge, while Democrat Neil Abercrombie was responsible for shepherding the Akaka bill through the U.S. House of Representatives.

Aiona, who if elected would be the state’s second governor of Hawaiian ancestry, also supports the Akaka bill.

Hawaiians “Treated Differently”

The release, and significance, of the OHA report was something more than just another press release and link to a website.

The physical version of the report, for example, is a color brochure rich with photographs of loi kalo (taro patches) and quotes from prisoners.

“Puali kalo i ka wai ole — Taro grows misshapen with the lack of water,” reads one caption. “Without proper care and attention one may become ill and deformed.”

One former male prisoner (“Paahao, Kane”) describes the parole board this way: “It’s the luck of the draw. The State has some of the worst laws. You don’t want to go into a parole hearing after the guy who went before you, pissed off the board. One guy goes in and he just makes the board lose it. You next. You stay walking in, you stay pumped up already because they ready to smash you.”

Namuo and others who spoke to reporters and supporters at OHA’s Kapiolani Boulevard offices Tuesday spoke of personal connections to the incarceration of Hawaiians. Their remarks were greeted with applause by an invited audience.

For example, attorney Yuklin Aluli recalled a 3-year-old child who was taken from his incarcerated mother and placed in a series of foster homes and institutions “that one by one closed.” The boy later ended up at a state hospital in Kaneohe and eventually in prison in Oklahoma.

(Due to costs, overcrowding and lack of community support for new prisons, 50 percent of Hawaii prisoners are housed in facilities on the mainland.)

“Thirty years later, this boy to whom I was a guardian — the same age as my son — calls needing a ticked to come back home,” said Aluli. “And now he is back in jail and he has two children. This is my own personal experience. The grandmother and mother are in prison at the same time as the kids.”

Aluli, who says half of all youth in state juvenile facilities are Hawaiian, said the OHA report demonstrates that Hawaii’s criminal justice system is rife with “institutional racism.”

Why — And What To Do

As explained in the report’s executive summary, the negative treatment of Native Hawaiians in the criminal justice system is centuries old. As a group, Native Hawaiians are already vulnerable because of the loss of land, culture and community that came from the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

“These racial disparities begin with the initial contact of a punitive system that creates over-powering barriers in changing the course of their lives and are exponentially increased as a person moves through the system,” according to the summary.

The solutions are wide-ranging, says OHA, and will require the involvement of many groups. They include assistance and training for law enforcement, “holistic interventions” and a “cultural shift” in the way Hawaii imprisons people.

Incarceration is particularly traumatic when Hawaiians are sent to mainland prisons far from their support networks. There are also a lack of programs and services in prison to prepare a person for returning to their community.

“Unless they wear my shoes, they can’t really comprehend what it’s like, how it feels, then have an (adult correctional officer) degrade me, that’s not encouraging me to better myself, especially if I have come from a very severe traumatic background in life,” says one former female prisoner. “Then you feel like a dollar symbol with a revolving door back to prison.”

Attorney Lawrence Okinaga said the report casts a harsh light on the criminal justice system.

“The statistics are there,” he said. “Hawaiians are just 24 percent of the population but 36 percent of those who plead guilty to a crime and are incarcerated.” Thirty-nine percent of the prison population is Native Hawaiian, he said, “because in part they get more consecutive sentences than others.”

Okinaga continued: “This is sad news for me personally. I am a lifelong proponent of judicial independence and the highest standards of ethical conduct for judges. They are required to be free of bias based on nationality, race, religion or economic situation.”

OHA is calling for the Legislature to form a task force to address the issues raised in the report.

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