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Governor signs pair of bills aimed at juvenile offenders

July 3, 2014 - 5:27am

Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed a pair of bills Wednesday aimed at juvenile offenders.

One, House Bill 2490, will focus space at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility on Oahu for the state’s most serious young offenders while strengthening probation practices to better manage those who have committed lower-level offenses.

The other, House Bill 2116, eliminates the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.

“House Bill 2490 is the more important of the two bills,” county Prosecutor Mitch Roth said. Roth was part of the 20-member Hawaii Juvenile Justice Working Group which spent months analyzing Hawaii’s juvenile justice system and developing policy solutions.

The bill’s primary sponsor is Rep. Mele Carroll, a Maui Democrat and chairwoman of the House Human Services Committee. The measure was passed unanimously by both legislative chambers.

The working group found that each bed at the HYCF costs taxpayers $199,000 a year. Despite that expense, the results are disappointing: three out of four youth who leave HYCF are re-adjudicated or convicted as adults within three years.

Many youth in the facility were there for misdemeanors or nonviolent crimes and would have been placed in community programs if they had been available, the working group found.

“A lot of times, you can put juveniles in prison and they come out a lot worse,” Roth said. “If we can have the outside services — on our island, things like the Salvation Army, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA, all of our youth organizations, and strengthen those, then we can reduce recidivism.”

The new law allows the courts to keep these lower-level, nonviolent offenders in their communities, where they can be held accountable and participate in treatment programs. Savings from the more targeted use of expensive space at the HYCF can be reinvested in community-based alternatives, including mental health and substance abuse treatments.

“It’s almost counter-intuitive, but there are studies that were brought up by the The Pew Charitable Trusts. They’ve actually shown that it does make a huge difference when we’re talking about getting these kids more services,” Roth said.

Over the next five years, the law is projected to reduce the HYCF population by 60 percent and save the state $11 million. In light of these savings, the Legislature provided an upfront investment of $1.26 million to fund community alternatives and implement the reforms.

“With this law, probation (officers) and judges have an option to send kids to better treatment facilities — or to treatment facilities in the first place, drug treatment facilities, mental health facilities,” Roth said. “Getting any services for our kids is a huge problem in our state, especially here on our neighbor islands.

“We’re trying to do a better job, be more responsible and reduce recidivism. We’re hoping this will reduce recidivism, keeping kids from going through the revolving door as an adult through the system.”

Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project said the research showed community treatment of most youths, as opposed to prison, provides taxpayers “much lower cost … with much better results.”

“Leaders in Hawaii let the data drive the discussion, and that led to legislation that will maximize the state’s return on its investment — for youth, for their families, and for public safety,” he said in a written statement.

Roth said the bill eliminating life sentences without parole for juveniles tried as adults is “basically codifying what has already been done.”

“The U.S. Supreme Court, in Miller vs. Alabama in 2012, set the tone,” he said. “We haven’t really had many of those cases, and the possibility that a kid’s going to (be sentenced to) a lifetime without the possibility of parole is very unlikely.”

The only offenses in Hawaii which carry a sentence of life without the possibility of parole are first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder, which include murder or attempted murder with more than one victim, murder or attempted murder of a police officer, judge or prosecutor in the performance of their duties, murder or attempted murder of a witness in a criminal case and murder or attempted murder for hire.

The law, introduced by Rep. Karen Awana, a Leeward Oahu Democrat, maintains a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole for an adult convicted of first-degree murder or first-degree attempted murder.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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