Gov. Abercrombie visits with a homeless girl.
Image: Ricky Li

Homelessness, joblessness, and young native Hawaiians’ disproportionate share of trouble

Community / A recent study finds that native Hawaiian youth are twice as likely to end up in the juvenile justice system (JJS) as any other ethnic group. And with youth employment at lower rates in 2011 than at any time during the prior decade, the problem may get worse.

Fortunately, the authors of the June 2012 report: Disproportionate Minority Contact in the Hawaii Juvenile Justice System: 2000-2010 have made some suggestions on how to patch the holes in Hawaii’s JJS that allow for such over representation.

The report, commissioned by the Juvenile Justice State Advisory Council and conducted in partnership with the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM) Department of Urban and Regional Planning, analyzed the arrest and court records of 56,978 individual juvenile offenders ages 10–17 years old from 2000–2010.

This is the first major study examining ethnic disparities in Hawaii’s JJS since 1995. While it demonstrates that Hawaiian youth are disproportionately represented in the JJS, the study also found that they are twice as likely as other groups to articulate a clear sense of justice, which could be a strength to build upon.

“In Hawaiian cultural terms, [they have] a sense of what’s pono or not,” said Tai-An Miao, M.A., one of the authors of the report. “The data isn’t new; it’s not a surprise to anyone,” she continued. “It’s more the idea of what are we going to do about this, and how are we going to collaborate?”

Runaways, not criminals

The report was prepared to meet a federal mandate that requires states to make steps to lower the number of minority children coming into contact with the JJS. The research confirmed that Hawaii’s JJS has unique challenges that must be tackled to make progress in the years ahead. One of those challenges will be to reduce the number of arrests for status offenses, which will, in turn, decrease disproportionate minority contact.

“When you look at all youth arrests in Hawaii for that time period, about half of all arrests are status offenses, which are not public safety issues. I mean, it’s running away from home. It’s truancy,” Miao explained. “Really trying to cut back on the number of kids arrested for things that aren’t a threat to public safety–if we were able to do that alone, it would free up money for prevention and early intervention services,” she explained.

Outdated model

Hawaii’s detention of “status offenders” such as runaways and truants contrasts with policies in much of the rest of the U.S., said UHM Women’s Studies Professor Meda Chesney-Lind. “Unlike the U.S. mainland, where runaway arrests have generally been declining and constitute a very small percentage of juvenile arrests, this report documents that here in the Islands, we have an ongoing commitment to arrest large numbers of Hawaii youth, particularly Hawaiian girls, for running away from home,” she continued. “Now we’ve had 30 years of a federal effort to de-institutionalize status offenders, but here in the Islands, it’s still a huge theme at our detention centers.”

According to Chesney-Lind, when these status offenders end up on probation, it creates a “backdoor way” for them to end up incarcerated. “You have a young woman who’s having issues with her family, on juvenile probation, gets into an argument with mom, and boom, now she’s incarcerated for technical violations of probation. So we end up with a large percent of our cases being runaways,” she said.

And cases that run all the way to incarceration are costly on all sides. “It costs a lot of money,” said Kat Brady, head of the Community Alliance on Prisons, which is working to develop effective interventions for Hawaii’s offenders.

According to the report, it takes an average of one year for a case to move through the system all the way to incarceration, and the longer a child is involved in the system, the less likely it is that that child will successfully exit the system and rejoin society. “It costs, like, $137,000 a year to incarcerate a kid, and when you’re talking about that amount of money, there is no way you can justify putting a status offender in there,” Brady said.


Fortunately, the report has some suggestions about how to both tackle disproportionate minority contact (DMS) as well as fill the gaps in what lead report author and UHM Professor of Urban and Regional Planning Karen Umemoto calls “the continuum of care.” A preventive approach should be shared between the justice, housing, education and other systems, she pointed out. “There isn’t a close enough collaboration between the courts, the schools and community-based organizations. So many youth are not connected at the early stages of getting into trouble with services that could help them,” Umemoto said.

“I was glad to see this report make the suggestion that we get out of the business of arresting kids for [truancy], and [that] we try and find non-justice system approaches to a non-criminal behavior that is often exhibited by kids who are responding to trauma, family problems or mental illness,” said Chesney-Lind.

“The one thing we need to do is address the problems our youth are having, and girls in particular have high runaway and truancy issues, and most of it does stem from problems like abuse,” Brady agreed.

The authors went to different communities statewide and held open meetings to try to brainstorm a model for a restorative-justice, community-centered approach to filling the current gaps in the system and for getting troubled youth the help they need.

The authors also met with county police chiefs, Family Court Judge R. Mark Browning, City Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro and head of Juvenile and Adult Probation Janice Yamada, as well as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Kamehameha Schools and the Queen Liliuokalani Children’s Center to try to work out a collaborative approach.

Throughout the process, the authors partnered with the Chair of the Juvenile Justice State Advisory Council Wayde Lee, and David Hipp and Ed Chargualaf of the Office of Youth Services (OYS).

Cultural reconnection

Out of the first few meetings, a model was developed for status offenders and low-level law violators. It includes a pilot civil citations program and the use of assessment centers to determine if youth have substance abuse or mental health needs. From there, they would enter a program called Wahi Kanaaho, where they would be able to reconnect with their culture and community through “a place of healing and learning.” Upon returning, they would enter “community-based restorative circles” involving their families, grassroots organizations and officials involved with evaluating the process.

“This is really the focal point of what we’re trying to do,” said Miao.

But the work is not over. “We need to meet with DOE,” said Miao. “Schools didn’t always call for law enforcement when there was an incident on campus, but there’s been a policy shift in recent years and it’s translated into more referrals from schools.

“It’s important for us to center our responses to youth around the strengths that are in the culture, because we have to acknowledge that the system has been unjust to native Hawaiians–there’s been a loss of land, a threat to identity, a threat to culture. Obviously the system has problems, so where can we look in the culture to help us where the system is failing?

“I feel like there’s a lot of optimism,” said Miao. “Wayde [Lee, chair of the JJS state advisory council], who doesn’t speak lightly, said he feels like things are really aligning for reform. There are the right people in the governor’s office, David Hipp at OYS (Office of Youth Service)–his vision is really collaborative. I think we have to move quickly though. We don’t want to miss this opportunity.”

It could truly bring forth a new day for neglected chidren and our society at large if Gov. Abercrombie’s plan to end homelessness is acted on in collaboration with programs like Wahi Kanaaho to provide the complete continuum of care for Hawaii’s youth.