Washington—Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie today signed into law a comprehensive set of juvenile justice policy reforms that will halve the number of youth held in the state’s secure facility and improve public safety by redirecting much of the savings to proven strategies for helping troubled youth move toward productive, law-abiding lives.
The landmark reforms, contained in House Bill 2490, will focus space at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility on the state’s most serious young offenders while strengthening probation practices to better manage those who have committed lower-level offenses. The legislation received support from prosecutors, the defense bar, the judiciary, and law enforcement, and it was passed unanimously by the Hawaii House of Representatives and Senate.
“Research showed that many youth who were being held behind bars could be kept in the community at much lower cost and with much better results,” said Adam Gelb, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project. “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.”
H.B. 2490 emerged from the recommendations of the 20-member Hawaii Juvenile Justice Working Group, created by Gov. Abercrombie, Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, Senate President Donna Mercado Kim, and House Speaker Joseph Souki. The group was co-chaired by Representative Mele Carroll, chair of the House Committee on Human Services; First Circuit Family Court Senior Judge R. Mark Browning; and Department of Human Services Deputy Director Barbara Yamashita. With technical assistance from Pew, the working group spent months analyzing Hawaii’s juvenile justice system and developing policy solutions.
The working group found that each bed at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility costs taxpayers $199,000 a year. Despite that expense, the system was achieving disappointing results: 3 out of 4 youth who leave the secure facility 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.
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 Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility can be reinvested in proven community-based alternatives, including mental health and substance abuse treatments.
In addition, the law creates consistency in probation practices across the state while improving the effectiveness of supervision by equipping probation officers with tools grounded in evidence and research to better reduce recidivism. The package of reforms also increases collaboration among youth-serving agencies, ensures that juvenile parole focuses on successful re-entry into the community, and implements a process of oversight and review to track system effectiveness.
Over the next five years, the law is projected to reduce the population of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility by 60 percent and save the state $11 million. In light of these cost savings, the Legislature provided an upfront investment of $1.26 million to fund community alternatives and implement the reforms.