Hawaii has no girls in juvenile detention. Here’s how it got there.



When Mark Patterson took over as administrator of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility in 2014, he inherited 500 acres of farmland — and care for 26 boys and seven girls ages 13 to 19.

As of 2016, his facility, in Kailua, Oahu, only held between five and six girls at a time. And in June, the last girl left the establishment.

For the first time, no girls are incarcerated in the state of Hawaii.

Patterson said this moment was “20 years in the making” and the result of a system-wide effort to divert girls from the justice system and into trauma-based care programs. The number of boys incarcerated has also decreased significantly over the past decade, he added.

Patterson said HYCF is a last resort – children there “have fled the programs 10 to 11 times” and are the most vulnerable of high-risk young people. But various state officials have agreed that “we don’t want to keep sending our kids to jail anymore,” Patterson said.

“What I’m trying to do is end the punitive model that we have used for so long for our children and replace it with a therapeutic model,” he added. “Do you really have to put a child in prison because she ran away? What kind of other environment is more conducive for her to heal and succeed in the community? »

Hawaii isn’t the only state to achieve zero girls in long-term care facilities.

According to Lindsay Rosenthal, director of the Vera Institute’s Initiative to end the imprisonment of girls, Vermont has no long-term placement facilities for girls, and for nine months in 2020, Maine had no girls incarcerated statewide. Since February 2021, New York City has had no more than two girls in the state’s juvenile placement center at any given time.

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This is part of a larger trend in juvenile justice reform: Since 2000, more than 1,000 juvenile establishments have closed, including two-thirds of the largest installations. And between 2000 and 2018, youth incarceration rates fall by more than half, according to the Square One Project, a justice reform initiative.

But just as women are the fastest growing prison population, the proportion of girls in juvenile detention increased although the overall numbers have declined. The researchers also believe a disproportionate number of incarcerated youth are non-binary or transgender, although there is little data on this. As advocates point out, the majority of incarcerated girls are in prison for minor offences, often influenced by a history of abuse – as shown in various research — or systemic challenges, such as poverty.

Rosenthal said juvenile justice reform has come a long way over the past 10 to 15 years. But she stressed that a zero state doesn’t necessarily reflect progress — Vermont has sent girls to New Hampshire facilities and placed at least a girl in an adult prison, for example – without the presence of alternative community programs. HYCF is an example of a facility that has seen such an investment pay off, she said.

Gender-focused programming is essential, Rosethal added, because of “the criminalization of sexual abuse.” This legacy, she said, dates back to colonization and slavery in the United States and resulted in the disproportionately high incarceration rate of black and indigenous women and girls.

“No matter what girls are charged with in the juvenile justice system today, the most common reason they are incarcerated, which most leaders talk about openly, is that they are not safe in the community. “, she said. “It’s wrong, and it has incredibly deep historical roots.”

HYCF’s story was also in the spotlight this year: in May, the Home Office released an investigative report which found that thousands or tens of thousands of children had died under the custody of federal boarding schools, which operated between 1819 and 1969 and separated Native American and Native Hawaiian children from their families. Among their list of schools involved in Hawaii are the Industrial and Reform Schools of Kawailoa and Waialee, the direct predecessors of HYCF which merged in the establishment in 1961.

The facility also attracted attention in the early years, when a 2004 Department of Justice investigation found that the facility was in a “state of chaos” with rampant abuse. The American Civil Liberties Union won a trial against HYCF in 2006, in which three young people accused the establishment and its staff of homophobic and transphobic abuse.

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Patterson said the movement to replace punitive systems with trauma-informed care in Hawaii’s juvenile justice system dates back to 2004, when retired First Circuit Family Court Judge Karen Radius ruled. founded the Girls Court. One of the first in the country, the program aimed to address the specific history of girls’ crimes and trauma.

“The news that there are currently no girls in the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility is great news. But we know that doesn’t mean we’ve solved all the issues facing girls and young women,” Radius said, noting her concern that pandemic closures and policy changes may have prevented at-risk young people from receiving needed support.

Many influential programs in the state have gone through Girls Court training. In 2009, Kealahou Project launched as a six-year, federally funded program to improve services for at-risk young women in Hawaii. And in 2013, Hawaii created the Juvenile Justice Reform Task Force analyze the juvenile justice system in Hawaii and provide policy recommendations aimed at reducing the HYCF population.

Then, in 2018, Patterson partnered with the Initiative to End the Incarceration of Girls and penned a “10-year strategy to get to zero.” The overarching goal was to focus on the underlying trauma the young people suffered from, rather than the crimes they were accused of, Patterson said.

Prior to working with youth, Patterson was the warden of Hawaii’s only women’s prison, the Women’s Community Correctional Center (WCCC), across the street. He said his time there showed him how many women there could trace their trauma back to their family life as children.

That same year, he embarked on the transition from HYCF to the Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center, reshaping the program around trauma-informed care – a framework for care providers to understand and consider the impact of background trauma of an individual on his life and health. Today’s campus includes a homeless shelter, an assessment center, a vocational training program for young people aged 15 to 24, a farm run by a nonprofit organization, and a high school for high-risk youth.

Guiding this transformation was Patterson’s goal of creating a pu’uhonua—a place created in a traditional Hawaiian village for conflict resolution and forgiveness—for Hawaii’s most vulnerable youth.

As Patterson described it, a pu’uhonua recognizes and identifies a wrong that has been done in the village. But unlike a punitive system, “we’re going to teach you how to live with the village and deal with evil,” he said. “So that you are no longer an outcast, but always welcome.”

Throughout decades of criminal justice reform in Hawaii, advocates have drawn attention to the disproportionate incarceration of Native Hawaiians. A study by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in 2009 reported that Native Hawaiians were more likely to be sentenced to prison than any other ethnic group in Hawaii, and that their prison sentences were likely to be longer.

Patterson said that in his experience, a disproportionate number of teenagers coming to see him are Native Hawaiians — both girls and boys at his facility.

The OHA attributes the overrepresentation of Native Hawaiians in the criminal justice system to disparate treatment. Its 2009 report describes discrimination in courts, parole practices and when interacting with correctional staff. He also detailed culturally inappropriate reintegration services for Native Hawaiians.

For Toni Bissen, Executive Director of Pu’a Foundationan organization focused on healing and reconciliation efforts related to the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, it all comes down to trauma: personal, historical and intergenerational.

“The generational aspect of loss and power, of poverty, of violence that just makes it worse,” she said. “That’s what’s happening in these households. And that’s why drugs, truancy, and different kinds of things are outlets.

The Pu’a Foundation organized a pre-transition class for the last four girls incarcerated at HYCF. But another important task of the transition was to identify programs that could provide them with specialized care. For some previously incarcerated girls, haven of pearls was this place.

Established two years ago by the nonprofit Ho’ola Na Pua (HNP), Pearl Haven is Hawaii’s first home care center for survivors of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. Jessica Munoz, president of HNP, said she saw a need for Pearl Haven when she worked as a clinical nurse practitioner in Hawaii.

“When I started, we were arresting kids,” she said. “We weren’t screening for sexual exploitation or trafficking in the justice system, in the child protection system.”

Tammy Bitanga, a lived experience expert and outreach coordinator at the PNH, sees the release of the girls at HYCF as a positive step forward. As a survivor of sex trafficking, she said she has also seen first-hand how Hawaii’s juvenile justice system is changing.

She was trafficked in the 1970s, she said, when “there was no word called trafficking”. Instead, she was considered an underage prostitute. “I hid behind it,” she said. “So I never told anyone what I was doing while I was on the run for nine months from the system.”

Today, the system offers young women the opportunity to see “what has been done to them, instead of what they have done”, Bitanga said.

Patterson now turns to expanding trauma-informed care legislation. In 2021, state lawmakers passed a bill creation of a working group on trauma-informed care within the Ministry of Health. And on July 12, lawmakers passed a invoice establish a temporary Office of Wellness and Resilience in the Governor’s office, which is authorized to address issues and implement solutions identified by the task force.

Despite this progress, Patterson said, the job is far from done.

“It’s not a zero… everyone’s done, we can go home,” he said. “Now the question is to maintain zero.”


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