Ten years ago, Jean Mooney’s life looked bleak.

Mooney had long been hooked on drugs — cocaine, heroin and meth — and struggling to find a way out. By the time she was arrested in downtown Honolulu for having a crack pipe and hauled off to prison, she had hit the bottom of a long, downward spiral.

“I wanted to stop. I knew I needed to stop. But I couldn’t stay clean to save my life,” Mooney said. “I was at the point where I wanted to die. I was in a slow suicide. I was too chicken to do the real one, so I was just doing the slow one.”

Going to prison gave Mooney the push she needed to kick her habit.

After serving four years in prison, Mooney emerged clean and sober — and now works as the housing specialist for The CHOW Project, a Honolulu-based nonprofit that runs the state-funded syringe-exchange program.

Jean Mooney kicked her drug habit after four years in prison. But she knows plenty of other drug offenders who didn't fare as well.
Jean Mooney kicked her drug habit after four years in prison. But she knows plenty of other drug offenders who didn’t fare as well. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On the face of it, Mooney’s odyssey from addict to advocate appears to validate the get-tough, lock-’em-up approach favored by “war on drugs” proponents.

But Mooney would be the first to say: Not so fast.

“For myself personally, prison saved my life. But it worked for me only because I made it work for me. My story is different from other people’s,” Mooney said. “When I was in there, I saw girls being released and coming back with new charges, and I was flipping out. All these kids in there — 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds — were acting as if it’s a summer camp.”

In recent years, as calls for overhauling the country’s criminal justice system have grown, a bipartisan coalition of reformers has been fighting to dial back the harsh penalties given to drug offenders — particularly nonviolent ones like Mooney and her former fellow inmates.

Prison-reform advocates argue that draconian sentencing laws, from mandatory minimum sentences to three-strikes laws that imposed automatic life terms on repeat offenders, have proven ineffective, while causing the country’s prison population to skyrocket — at enormous cost to taxpayers.

The recognition of the cost has led to sentencing reforms at the federal level and in states from New York to Texas.

In Hawaii, however, the momentum for criminal justice reform has been slow to build.

Last year, the Legislature adopted a bill creating a two-year pilot program to divert up to 100 “nonviolent, low-risk drug offenders” from prison into treatment. It was supposed to start July 1, 2014, but, thanks to bureaucratic red tape, Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety has yet to get the program off the ground.

“They’re just removing the undesirables from the society — out of sight, out of mind. But they’re paying an insane amount of money to do it.” — Jean Mooney

Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, says the department didn’t get approval in time from the Hawaii Department of Budget and Finance to receive the $250,000 that the Legislature appropriated for the program’s first year.

“It was because of the transition we were going through with the new administration,” Schwartz said. “By the time we realized that we needed to have a plan in place — something to give to the Budget and Finance in order for them to approve it — it was too late.”

With no funds set aside by the Legislature, the program remains dormant in its second year.

Meanwhile, the state continues to spend tens of millions of dollars to lock up people on nonviolent, low-level drug offenses.

As of Sept. 30, the Department of Public Safety was holding 460 inmates for whom a drug-related felony was the “lead crime.”

More than three-quarters of them, or 361 inmates, had been convicted of one of two lowest-level felonies — “promoting a dangerous drug in the third degree” and “prohibited acts related to drug paraphernalia” — reserved for those who are arrested on possession charges.

According to the Hawaii Paroling Authority, those convicted of either of the two felonies are given an average minimum sentence of more than two and a half years.

With the cost of incarcerating each inmate at $140 per day, that means the state is spending more than $46 million to lock up the 361 inmates.

Mooney, who was convicted of both of the two felonies in 2005, says the money could be better spent elsewhere.

“It seems like the lawmakers have made it to where they’re just removing the undesirables from the society — out of sight, out of mind,” Mooney said. “But they’re paying an insane amount of money to do it. That could be put toward rehabilitation efforts.”

Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, a nonprofit pushing for criminal justice reform in Hawaii, concurs.

“I’d love to see that kind of money going into the community programming here. And think about what we can accomplish with it,” Brady said. “But we insist on sending people to prisons. That’s so counterproductive. You don’t just banish people; you try to address the problem that is causing the social ills.”

Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro. 18 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro opposes the efforts to dial back the harsh penalties imposed on nonviolent drug offenders. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Is Simple Possession A ‘Myth?’

Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro is skeptical that the state can roll back the sentences and release drug offenders without sacrificing decades of hard-won reductions in crime.

Kaneshiro calls the notion that those who are in prison for low-level drug offenses are there for simple possession charges a “myth.”

“These guys are locked up because they are repeat offenders. They had three or four chances but screwed up every time, so they had probation or parole revoked,” Kaneshiro said.

To keep the offenders accountable, Kaneshiro says incarceration is sometimes necessary.

“I used to be the director of public safety, so I believe in the concept of rehabilitation'” Kaneshiro said. “But there’s got to be, at some point in time, consequences for criminal conduct. We cannot ignore consequences. Yes, the part of incarceration is rehabilitation — that’s part of the mission. But another part of the mission is incapacitation — to take this dangerous person out of the community and provide consequences for their actions. People forget that part. They only look at rehabilitation. It’s not just rehabilitation; it’s all these concepts.”

But Myles Breiner, president of the Hawaii Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says Kaneshiro’s approach has failed to make a dent in the recidivism rate of drug offenders.

“When they’re serving time, they’re in a college of criminality. They’re housed with more hardened criminals and learning to do bigger crimes.” — Myles Breiner, president of the Hawaii Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

“Isn’t it the definition of insanity — you try the same solution and expect a different result? That solution has been to incarcerate, expand mandatory sentencing, have a lackluster attitude toward funding programming to deal with this issue,” Breiner said.

Breiner adds that incarceration often ends up making things worse.

“When they’re serving time, they’re in a college of criminality. They’re housed with more hardened criminals and learning to do bigger crimes,” Breiner said. “It’s a guarantee that, when they come out, they’re going to reoffend.”

Heather Lusk, executive director of The CHOW Project, says the key is to have an array of treatment options available to allow people to make gradual changes toward recovery.

“Through working in groups or one-on-one, we can motivate people who are not yet ready to change and make them realize why not using drugs is going to be healthier for them,” Lusk said. “With a wide variety of options, we can do that. We can individualize the treatment for each person, instead of trying to get people into a cookie-cutter model of abstinence-based residential treatment and telling them, ‘This is your only option — or nothing.'”

State Sen. Will Espero, vice chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, says he’ll continue to support progressive initiatives to end mass incarceration of drug offenders.

“With those individuals who are nonviolent and whose primary offense is drug-related, we should see if there’s a better way of dealing with them and give them treatment and help them develop job skills,” Espero said. “The majority of the public understand that, yes, really bad guys need to be behind bars, but individuals who are not going to be a menace to the society are best kept out of prison. With proper monitoring and guidance, that could be very beneficial for everyone.”

To make that happen, Espero says he’d like to see the Department of Public Safety rescue the pilot program.

“If the administration would want to move forward and continue, I’d guess that the Legislature would support it,” Espero said. “If we need to, we’d have to reintroduce a similar bill in the next session and hold this administration accountable for making sure the program gets underway.”

For his part, Nolan Espinda, the director of public safety, says he’d welcome the lawmakers’ support.

“As director, I support as many alternatives to incarceration as can be possibly provided to the judiciary, for all nonviolent offenders,” Espinda said.

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