Hawaii Behind Bars: Restorative justice, not punitive incarceration, should be path for Hawaii's women inmates

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The following editorial was originally printed in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sunday January 7, 2018 as part of the "Raise Your Hand" column in the Insights section. 

By: Taylor McKenzie
Sacred Hearts Academy, Class of 2018

One of the most pressing issues in our community is one that is rarely mentioned in the media: female incarceration. Since the late 1990s, the amount of female inmates in Hawaiʻi has more than doubled. This extensive issue reaches every corner of the United States, as we have turned to a harsh punitive jail system rather than supporting social services to aid vulnerable communities.

The women who are convicted in Hawaiʻi have several similarities. They are usually convicted for “public order” offenses, including non-violent, illicit acts connected to substance abuse. These women are more likely to suffer from mental illnesses, compared to their male counterparts. Most incarcerated women are either of African American or Hispanic descent, with more than 44 percent of female prisoners in Hawaiʻi of Native Hawaiian descent. The majority of local imprisoned women are not only Native Hawaiian, but, according to the Department of Human Services, 85 percent of them are also mothers.

Another shared burden is the overwhelming sexual and emotional abuse experienced both before and during imprisonment. The 80 percent of female inmates who have experienced some form of abuse often use drugs as a coping method to overcome past trauma. This may be the reason why almost 90 percent of the crimes these women commit are drug-related. When these crimes are not related to substance abuse or trauma, they are often petty crimes, such as stealing clothes or food. Women also commit crimes due to other reasons besides mental illness and substance abuse. However, women incarcerated due to societal issues, such as a lack of money or dependence on drugs, have other options besides our state’s default punitive measures.

Nationwide, grassroots organizations are revolutionizing the way we view offenders and the social justice system. More time and money needs to be invested into restorative justice services in Hawaiʻi. Dr. Susan Sharpe’s theory behind “restorative justice” inspired many programs, such as the “Insight Prison Project,” a California based organization working with social justice services and jail systems to treat offenders with respect. The group is changing how prisons are perceived by turning them into rehabilitation centers that focus on healing, rather than punishment. If restorative justice practices were implemented in Hawaiʻi, it could radically change how we treat and view female offenders.

The principles behind restorative justice view crime as the fault of society – not as an individual’s mistake. Social issues, including the state’s lack of proper resources to take care of all people and an exorbitant cost of living, contribute to the high percentage of women who commit petty crimes. Furthermore, the excessive rate of crimes related to substance abuse indicates that societal issues need to be solved at the community level before they become a crime worthy of punitive action.

With increasing rates of female incarceration, the ideas behind restorative justice must be implemented in order to change how we view the social justice system. Incarceration is not the solution for every criminal; often, social services, such as counseling, will be able to curb a lifetime of crime and support entire communities. An example of restorative justice practices already working in Hawaiʻi is the YWCA’s work furlough program, “Ka Hale Ho‘āla Hou No Nā Wāhine,” a community-based model designed to reduce the rate of recidivism and help women and their families move forward after incarceration. If we were to implement this type of program to our islands’ entire justice process, there would be a change in the rate of female incarceration. We need to move forward and alter how we view the punitive system in Hawaiʻi – to support women before, during and after incarceration.