Hawaii's Justice System Is Becoming Safer And More Empathetic - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Sonny Ganaden

Sonny Ganaden is the representative for District 30 (Kalihi, Kalihi Kai, Keehi Lagoon, Hickam Village). He is a lawyer, a fellow with the National Coalition of State Legislatures, a former lead writer for the Native Hawaiian Justice Task Force and an artist. 

Regrettably, however, expanding criminal sentencing is a successful political strategy. That must end.

The next century of public safety cannot look like the past century. Fortunately, we are headed in the right direction. Advocating for a more empathetic justice system is not based in “bleeding heart” philosophy.

Over the last several decades crime has statistically dropped. We collectively have a deeper understanding of the intersections of addiction, houselessness, intergenerational poverty, various forms of trauma and crime.

Discussions of the histories of racist and xenophobic policies in justice systems have become acknowledged in American political discourse through the arts, activism and old-fashioned data collection. 

Health care professionals have become adept at assisting those with addiction. Across the world, municipalities are diversifying social services to deter crime, save tax dollars and increase public safety measures.

These trends show that the state is headed in a positive direction. 

And yet, mass incarceration remains imbedded in our practice of law and conceptions of legislative work. Over the last half-century there has been a failed war on drugs, and the constant increase of sentencing, probation and pretrial incarceration.

OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center.
The Oahu Community Correctional Center is chronically overcrowded and falling apart. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

In Hawaii in 1978, approximately one out of every 1,000 people were incarcerated. National rates of incarceration exploded through the 1980s and ’90s. The incarceration rate in the islands expanded fivefold and has diminished recently. About 24,000 people currently are under state supervision, or incarcerated in Hawaii or in out-of-state corporate prisons.

On Oahu, we are exploring a more humane, successful and affordable Oahu Community Correctional Center with supporting programs throughout the island. But there is also pressure to keep locking people away without a path toward rehabilitation.  

Mass Incarceration Still Politically Beneficial

Expanding criminal sentencing is a successful political strategy. Until recently, it has been the bread and butter of American politicians. Many of us in elected office are guilty of contributing to the use of incarceration as an election strategy, and benefiting from trauma and grief, without data.

When crime happens, there is often a rise in unrelated legislation that increases sentencing in lieu of addressing the root causes of criminal behavior. It is difficult, and often politically unwise, to explain aspects of the justice system in ways that are rational and empathetic.

Discussing the ways that diversifying investment in services produces safer results than incarceration remains highly politicized and devoid of the rational, data-driven policy that we see in local environmental legislation.

I deeply respect the demanding work of policing our streets. The professionalism of the current leadership of county police departments is not in question. However most in the community agree that there is a need for continual reform and oversight.

History matters. At the end of the gulf war in the 1990s, military industrial hardware corporations began targeting their products to local police departments. The trend was accelerated during the Global War on Terror.

During Covid, when crime reached new lows, the Honolulu Police Department purchased several electronic dogs, an entire fleet of all-terrain vehicles and had a questionable use overtime pay.

Though there is ample funding for officers, recruitment remains low. There is a continuing national trend in the development of surveillance and training facilities under the auspices of national security and climate change. Regarding training for first responders, two trends are occurring at once.

There is abundant support for community policing, trauma-informed care and de-escalation strategies. There is far less data supporting the purchase and use of weapons designed for warfare. 

What Hawaii Is Doing Is Right

The Hawaii Judiciary must be commended for its dedication to ending the unnecessary and traumatizing effects of incarceration on children.

Over the last decade, there has been a concerted move toward ending cycles of trauma for children by judges, lawyers, state departments and service providers. Programs have been developed, professionals have been trained and a community has acknowledged that incarceration of children does not decrease crime, but in fact exacerbates it.

As a result of this shift, the Department of Public Safety made headlines last year, when it was announced that it had no female juvenile inmates in custody. There are further plans to reduce youth interactions with the court entirely, by working with communities to advance what is tentatively referred to as “cultural courts,” modeled after similar programs in native communities across the Pacific and North America.

Given these successful measures, there will be no need for new facilities that continue mass incarceration into the 21st century. By ending cycles of violence and trauma, and decreasing crime committed by young people, we can “project” the decreased necessity of incarceration in the adult population. The state criminal justice oversight commission, only recently funded by the state Legislature, as well as researchers at the University of Hawaii are working diligently on those numbers.

Changes in the law remain necessary. We must further depoliticize conversations regarding criminal justice and learn as we go. Though there are political incentives to developing and funding the physical building of facilities, it is more difficult, but more effective, to fund and support the intense work of putting a human life on track.

In the next few years, the Legislature should:

  • support the work of the Judiciary, community organizations, churches, and sports and arts organizations in substantively ending child incarceration through diversion
  • support the data-driven work of numerous health care service providers in ending cycles of trauma and addiction
  • expand the rights of due process for those awaiting trial, in order to identify and order individuals to treatment
  • continue to significantly invest in housing, and reduce the barriers to housing
  • codify the ability of police to cite and demand a court appearance for individuals who are accused of nonviolent petty misdemeanors and misdemeanors — a practice that showed no increase in crime and an increase in court appearances during Covid and is supported by officers
  • expand the numerous best practices already in place for specialty courts such as Drug Court and Veterans Treatment Court, which serve to treat addiction and houseless issues appropriately, and monitor individuals in treatment in lieu of incarceration
  • expedite mental health proceedings and placements in district courts

For those arrested and awaiting trial, assessed as a danger to themselves or others or as a flight risk, there is pretrial incarceration. For those who lose their freedom after conviction, there is prison and rehabilitation prior to release in the community.

For hundreds of other nonviolent pretrial detainees across the islands, we must expand existing safe and appropriate options outside of criminal justice. This will lead to lower crime and less recidivism, as accomplished worldwide and throughout the United States

What this means for residents of Oahu, in literal concrete terms, is a smaller future Oahu Community Correctional Center — on a portion of its current site or another site — and a variety of sites and programs that serve to deter crime using best practices. NIMBY (not in my backyard) arguments loom on the horizon. As all communities are affected by drug addiction and crime, we must share responsibilities.

Those in the business of counseling, drug treatment and social services are employed in difficult, often thankless work. Societal norms regarding justice are rapidly changing. Our judiciary and health care professionals have acknowledged and embraced these changes, in support of a more peaceful and equitable society.

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About the Author

Sonny Ganaden

Sonny Ganaden is the representative for District 30 (Kalihi, Kalihi Kai, Keehi Lagoon, Hickam Village). He is a lawyer, a fellow with the National Coalition of State Legislatures, a former lead writer for the Native Hawaiian Justice Task Force and an artist. 

Latest Comments (0)

I totally agree with you. Thank you for writing this beautiful and inspiring piece.

zoewyse · 2 months ago

So you're saying San Francisco is doing ok and that's what you want for Hawaii? 24k? That sounds light, less than 2% of the population. And then we hear of people that are free after having dozens of arrests and then running over our school children when they should have been in prison for life. And our cars keep disappearing or getting broken into, clearly we need a few hundred more people in prison here to make society better for the free people who are working hard to live their lives. Don't think for a second that going lighter on criminals is what the citizens want or will accept.

Da_Observer · 2 months ago

Weakness on crime is what is creating more crime, as some in society have developed an acceptance of bad behavior. Repeat offenders are commonplace, and the old adage "if you do the crime you need to do the time," needs to be embraced fully as a deterrence to criminal activity.

Greg · 2 months ago

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