For the first time in its history, the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility holds no incarcerated girls. Some believe that the same fate for boys may not be far behind.

The departure of all girls from the facility in May follows decades of reform efforts from state departments and community organizations aiming to divert youth from Hawaii’s juvenile justice system.

Meda Chesney-Lind, professor emerita of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii, said experts have grappled with the challenge of reducing the population of the correctional facility since the 1980s.

Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility
Youth work on a farm at the Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center, which serves as an alternative to the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility and is located on the facility’s grounds. Courtesy: Partners in Development Foundation

Those efforts were accelerated after a 2004 Department of Justice investigation revealed abuses at the facility, including the sexual assault of girls and inadequate medical care for incarcerated youth.

In response, state leaders focused on developing reforms to reduce Hawaii’s reliance on the juvenile justice system.

While some efforts have focused specifically on reducing the facility’s female population, others have provided community-based alternatives and robust support systems that have helped boys as well.

The proof of success lies in the numbers: while HYCF had 200 boys 50 years ago, the number has now fallen to 16. The number of girls has hovered around three to four a day over the past two years, also marking a drop from the 25 female incarcerees HYCF held 10 years ago.

The Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women tweeted Thursday that HYCF’s female population had finally hit zero. However, girls may still enter HYCF in the future.

The announcement drew praise from Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who retweeted the commission’s announcement with the comment “Wow. Another world is possible.”

The correctional center also has reduced its footprint. Mark Patterson is the administrator of HYCF and the Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center, a farming program for vulnerable youth located on HYCF’s property. He said he managed three correctional cottages with up to 100 beds eight years ago. Today, there is only one cottage with 30 beds.

Martha Torney, the former executive director of the Office of Youth Services who helped resolve the justice department’s litigation against the state, said she credits the Judiciary’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative with reducing the number of young people incarcerated at HYCF.

The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative offers community-based substitutes to detention and incarceration across the country. The initiative has collected data on the conditions of incarceration facilities, promoted home confinement alternatives and implemented reforms expediting the processing of juvenile cases.

“Once you turn off that faucet and you start diverting kids away from detention, fewer and fewer are going to be committed to the youth facility,” Torney said.

At the same time, community organizations have sought to identify at-risk youth and divert them from the juvenile justice system.

Some of those alternatives are provided by Hale Kipa, a nonprofit organization that focuses on addressing the underlying issues of trauma and abuse that often lead youth to commit crimes.

For example, the Kalihi Juvenile Assessment Center tries to keep individuals out of family court and the juvenile justice system by providing youth with civil citations and services to improve family relationships, remain in school and navigate their teenage years.

Hale Kipa also operates the Hale Lanipolua Assessment Center, which allows both girls and boys who were victims of sex trafficking to receive emergency housing and trauma-informed support instead of becoming incarcerated.

Hale Lanipolua (2) Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility Youth Prison
The inside of the Hale Lanipolua Assessment Center, which is run by Hale Kipa and serves as an alternative to the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility. Courtesy: Jaque Kelley-Uyeoka

“Many of our programs are for both boys and girls, because we believe strongly that catching anyone earlier in there will prevent more penetration into the juvenile justice system,” Hale Kipa’s deputy CEO Jaque Kelley-Uyeoka said.

Meanwhile in 2014, Hawaii’s Legislature passed a law increasing investments in youth mental health and substance abuse programs with the goal of cutting HYCF’s population by 60% by 2019. In the same year, the Legislature decriminalized prostitution for minors.

Many of the reforms targeted both boys and girls, Torney said. However, specific changes including the decision to decriminalize prostitution, targeted unique problems faced by girls in the juvenile justice system.

In 2004, the Hawaii State Judiciary created the Girls Court to teach probation officers how to work with and understand girls’ needs since workers’ caseloads overwhelmingly consisted of boys.

“Once you turn off that faucet and you start diverting kids away from detention, fewer and fewer are going to be committed to the youth facility.” — Martha Torney

At the same time, judges received training in order to understand the underlying trauma driving girls’ decisions to run away from home. As a result, judges began to work with girls to help them receive counseling and other services in lieu of placement at HYCF.

Gender-specific approaches to diverting youth from HYCF also reflect differences in the reasons for incarceration for boys and girls across the state. While girls are more likely to commit status offenses, such as violating the state’s 10 p.m. curfew or failing to attend school, boys tend to be more involved in criminal activities such as robbery, sexual assault or murder, Torney said.

For these reasons, Torney added, it may be more difficult for HYCF’s male population to drop to zero.

“We have boys who engage in very serious behaviors, and so we may never get it to zero,” Torney said. “I’m very proud of where it is.”

However, Patterson remains hopeful about the potential for continued progress in the state. He believes it is possible to reduce the overall population in HYCF, especially because many of the youth who are convicted of serious felonies are tried and held in the adult criminal system.

Chesney-Lind also sees the milestone of having no girls as a positive sign for the future.

“I’ve always argued that female incarceration is really just a roadmap for how we get fewer and fewer kids into those kinds of settings,” Chesney-Lind said. “Because you don’t want to have your kids growing up in a prison.”

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