Earlier this month, Gov. David Ige signed off on House Bill 2421, creating a three-year pilot program for the state’s first Women’s Court.

The bill was backed by the Women’s Prison Project, a 31-member coalition who worked closely with the Hawaii Women’s Legislative Caucus on several bills to help incarcerated women.

This bill appropriates almost $700,000 out of the state general fund to address women’s distinct needs by implementing gender-responsive programming, with the goal of reducing recidivism and diverting participants from incarceration.

First Circuit Court Building. 13 april 2016.
The three-year pilot program for a Women’s Court in Oahu’s 1st Circuit appropriated $695,236 to the Judiciary for implementation and positions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Eligible women in the program will have access to services such as trauma and mental health treatment, domestic violence prevention and life-skills training.

Though the eligibility criteria has not yet been set, First Circuit Chief Judge Mark Browning, who initially came up with the idea for the program, said eligibility could include women who are nonviolent offenders, who have evidence or history of mental health issues and/or substance abuse, or a history of marginalization that has pushed them towards criminal pathways.

Temporary positions for the program will include a social worker supervisor, four social workers, a Circuit court clerk and a judicial clerk position, but may involve more positions depending on availability and funding.

Browning said he has asked 1st Circuit Judge Trish Morikawa to run the pilot program on Oahu. The goal is to launch before the end of this year, and Browning anticipates at least 30 women to be a part of the court by early 2023.

“I have no doubt this program will be successful,” Browning said.

Other than the obvious benefit of changing the lives of the women involved in the program, as well as the lives of any children they have, Browning said it will save taxpayers money, as the cost of incarceration is much higher than being able to intervene and provide gender-specific types of probation and services.

The gender-specific approach has already proven to be a success on Oahu. Last month, for the first time in its history, the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility announced it was not currently incarcerating any girls.

This may be attributed to the Girls Court on Oahu, one of the first in the nation, launched in 2004 by the Family Court.

Browning, who was the presiding juvenile drug court judge for eight years and has been a district family court judge since 1997 was not involved in the formation of Girls Court but was a part of the discussion of why it was needed.

Browning said the data that was found in their research for Women’s Court showed that the pathways for women entering the criminal justice system was entirely different from men, and it was consistent with what was found for Girls Court in relation to boys. The data also showed that for the majority, both women and girl offenders were nonviolent.

Other states that have launched similar programs that have been successful include: Delaware, Nevada, Minnesota, Ohio, and several others, according to Browning.

In the last 40 years, the number of incarcerated women in the U.S. increased by almost 500%, according to data provided by The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy center based in Washington, rising from a total of 26,326 in 1980 to 152,854 in 2020.

In the last 40 years in Hawaii, the number of women in jail has increased by 1,941%, and the number of women in prison has increased by 1,836%, according to data provided by the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent nonprofit national research and policy organization.

number of women in hawaii prisons
Women now make up almost one out of every four jail admissions, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Courtesy: Vera Institute of Justice

Rep. Linda Ichiyama, the primary sponsor of the bill, said other than the significant increase of the number of women in Hawaii jails and prisons, women in Hawaii also have a high recidivism rate of 50%.

“The data showed us that the system is not working,” Ichiyama said, adding that it also showed that women’s pathways to becoming justice-involved is oftentimes caused by underlying trauma, childhood sexual abuse, and being a part of a household with domestic violence.

“Until we really address the underlying root trauma, then it’s not going to solve all the symptoms that the trauma is causing,” Ichiyama said.

Erin Harbinson, the director of the Criminal Justice Research Institute, a research organization established by the Hawaii State Judiciary, said that there are various reasons incarceration rates increased for women, but a large part is due to sentencing changes.

Harbinson said if those who are already incarcerated are required to serve longer sentences while more people are coming in, it will ultimately result in a population growth within the facility because no one is getting out. According to Harbinson, another one of the main issues that caused women’s incarceration rates to grow was tougher penalties on drug-related crimes.

Lorenn Walker, director of Hawaii Friends of Restorative Justice, who was incarcerated for a short time as a juvenile for marijuana possession, said that because of her experience, she understands the social problems that bring people into the legal system.

Walker, who is also a member of the Women’s Prison Project and previously served as a Hawaii deputy attorney general for a decade, fully supports the Women’s Court program but is concerned with the language in the bill relating to “substance abuse detection.” She hopes the court will consider harm reduction approaches, or instead “substance disorder detection.”

Walker said she trusts the judgment of Browning and Morikawa, but feels uneasy due to issues in other jurisdictions where individuals have ended up with a more stringent punishment relating to substance abuse.

“It’s sad that our society and culture, instead of dealing with these problems that are clearly social in nature, we’ve dealt with them in a criminal way,” Walker said. “We punish people for substance disorders.”

According to Walker, another issue that is social in nature is the “personal agency” women tend to lack, causing many women to perceive themselves as not having control or not having the freedom to make their own choices.

“I hope that this program will help women see that they always have a choice,” she said.

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