Shift in policy and practice focuses on girls’ history of trauma
As of July 2022, there were no girls imprisoned in all of Hawaii, according to reporting by The Washington Post.
In 2014, Mark Patterson took over as administrator of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility; 500 acres of farmland and the residence of 26 boys and seven girls between 13 and 19 years old, according to the article.
By 2016 his office in Kailua, Oahu only held five or six girls at a time. By June 2016 that number dropped to zero.
Patterson said this achievement was the result of a system-wide undertaking “20 years in the making,” to redirect girls from the carceral system and into trauma-based care programs. The number of detained boys has also greatly decreased in the last ten years, Patterson added.
Patterson said the children who are sent to the youth facility “have run away from programs 10 to 11 times” and are the most vulnerable of at-risk youth. However, other state authorities have concurred that “we no longer want to keep sending our kids to prison,” Patterson said.
“What I’m trying to do is end the punitive model that we have so long used for our kids, and we replace it with a therapeutic model,” Patterson said. “What kind of other environment is more conducive for her to heal and be successful in the community?”
Other states have also eliminated girls in long-term placement facilities, according to the article.
Lindsay Rosenthal, director of the Vera Institute’s Initiative to End Girl’s Incarceration, said both Maine and Vermont have zero girls incarcerated statewide. New York City hasn’t had more than two girls in the state’s juvenile placement facility at a time.
This is part of a bigger pattern in juvenile justice reform. Starting around 2000, over 1,000 juvenile facilities have shut down, including two-thirds of the biggest facilities. Youth incarceration rates more than halved between 2000 and 2018, according to the Square One Project, a justice reform initiative.
Activists say most incarcerated girls are incarcerated for low-level offenses, often impacted by a history of poverty. Using limited data, researchers also believe a disproportionate number of detained youth are non-binary or transgender.
Gender-focused programming is fundamental, Rosenthal added, due to “the criminalization of sexual abuse” stemming from American colonization and slavery, which has led to the disproportionately high incarceration rates of Black and Indigenous women and girls.
“No matter what girls are charged with in the juvenile legal system today, the most common reason why they’re incarcerated, which most leaders openly talk about, is that they are not safe in the community,” Rosenthal said. “That’s wrong, and it has incredibly deep, historical roots.”
In May, the Interior Department released an investigative report into the deaths of children in the care of federal boarding schools, which operated from 1819 to 1969 and separated Native Hawaiians and Native American children from their families. Hawaiian schools include the Kawailoa and Waialee Industrial and Reformatory Schools, which merged to form the youth facility in 1961.
Patterson said the movement to replace punitive systems with trauma-informed care in Hawaii’s system began in 2004 when Judge Karen Radius, then First Circuit Family Court judge, established Girls Court. One of the first in the country, the program meant to address the particular violations and trauma of girls.
“News that there are currently no girls in the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility at this point in time is great news,” Radius said. “But we know it doesn’t mean we have solved all the issues facing girls and young women.”
Activists have focused on the disproportionate incarceration of Native Hawaiians throughout decades of Hawaiian criminal justice reform. Research by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in 2009 found that in Hawaii, Native Hawaiians were the most likely ethnic group to become incarcerated, and that their sentences were probably going to be longer.
Patterson said that as far as he can tell, a disproportionate number of teenagers coming to the youth facility are Native Hawaiians – both girls and boys.
Toni Bissen is executive director of the Pu’a Foundation, an association aimed at healing and reconciliation efforts connected with the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
“The generational aspect of loss and power, poverty, violence that just kind of compounds,” Bissen said. “That’s why drugs, truancy and different kinds of things are outlets.”
The Pu’a Foundation held a pre-transition class for the last four girls at the facility. One important task was finding programs that could give them specialty care.
Cathy Betts, director of the Department of Human Services in Hawaii, said achieving zero incarcerated girls gave her “hope for the future” — and that trauma-informed care is vital for “any work involving humans.”
“You’ve got to understand that people’s blood, sweat and tears went into this moment,” she said, tearing up. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Patterson is now turning his focus toward passing laws on trauma-informed care. In 2021, Hawaii established a trauma-informed care task force inside the Department of Health. On July 12, 2022, Hawaii also established a temporary office of wellness and resilience in the office of the governor aimed at implementing solutions identified by the task force.
Even with this achievement, Patterson said the work is nowhere near finished. “Now the question is sustaining zero,” Patterson said.