Mark Recktenwald, the head of the state’s court system, advocated for more funding for diversion programs.

Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald compared the looming challenges of solving the state’s mental health and homelessness crises to the giant North Shore waves faced by Eddie Aikau, whose namesake surf competition was held for the first time in seven years last weekend.

The big wave surfer, lifeguard and Hokulea crewmember disappeared after paddling out alone to find help for the vessel’s crew after it capsized between Oahu and Molokai in 1978.

“Just as Eddie would go, the three branches of government must be bold and courageous in finding solutions to the daunting challenges facing our community,” Recktenwald said to a gathering of state lawmakers and guests Wednesday, including Aikau’s brother, Clyde.

Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald called for more funding for mental health treatment services during his first in-person state of the judiciary address since 2020. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

His speech focused on the Judiciary’s accomplishments in the last year, including allowing court filings to be made electronically 24/7 and livestreaming and archiving all of the state Supreme Court’s oral argument hearings.

He also thanked lawmakers for supporting projects like Hale Kalele, a $91 million affordable housing project on Piikoi Street that also offers social services and shelter for juveniles, as well as a new $48 million civic center in Wahiawa, which will include a new district court building.

But he said more needs to be done. In particular, Recktenwald says the state needs more treatment beds and access to crisis intervention centers to provide care for those experiencing mental health problems.

“My sense is that we’ve got a long way to go, but areas where we have agreement should be the focus. The state has the resources,” Recktenwald said in a phone interview following his speech.

While treatment beds and crisis centers are run by agencies like the state Department of Health and not the Judiciary, Recktenwald said he thought it was important to advocate for programs that could keep people out of the criminal justice system.

The Judiciary comes into play with its specialized treatment courts that work with service providers to keep defendants out of jail and other services run out of the state court system.

Recktenwald highlighted a probation program for women that allows them to keep their children while participating in the court system’s diversion programs. The judiciary is asking for $200,000 to continue the program.

It ties into the women’s court pilot program, which the Legislature created last year to divert women, especially mothers, away from the traditional court system. About 20 women are going to be part of the initial pilot program this year, according to an implementation report.

Recktenwald also asked lawmakers to put money back in the budget for 30 positions that were defunded during the pandemic. He said those included several judge positions that were vacant at the time they were defunded as well as other staff and probation officers.

“We have the ability to absorb that in the short term but it affects our ability to deliver services,” Recktenwald said.

The cost to fund those positions again totals about $2.3 million. Senate Judiciary Chairman Karl Rhoads said it’s likely the Judiciary will get some of those positions funded again.

“Their asks aren’t that big in the broad scheme of things, and there’s no question the court system is all jammed up,” Rhoads said.

The judiciary is also asking for $360,000 for a new Oahu district court judge and staff to help alleviate the caseload in the Waianae, Pearl City, Wahiawa and Kaneohe courts. Currently, the courts are staffed by judges on a rotating basis.

One other point Recktenwald highlighted during his speech was the diversity of the Judiciary. Women now account for 49% of full-time judges in the state, up from about 45% two years ago, when the Senate voted to reject a nominee to the Intermediate Court of Appeals in part due to calls for greater diversity on the bench.

The makeup of the state Supreme Court is also expected to change drastically in the next several year. Associate Justices Paula Nakayama and Michael Wilson will be retiring, opening the way for Gov. Josh Green to appoint their replacements.

And in 2025, Recktenwald will also reach the mandatory retirement age, giving Green another court pick as well as the choice of who will be the next chief justice.

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