Tuesday, January 16, 2001
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Posted on: Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Shift in prison plans welcome policy change

Whether it is a matter of budget priorities or a true policy shift, it is welcome news that Gov. Ben Cayetano has decided there are better ways to spend the state’s money than constructing a major new state prison in Hawaii.

Experience suggests that no matter how many prison bed spaces are constructed, a way will be found to fill them.

Rather than spend corrections money on a major new facility, Cayetano is now looking at some modest construction programs for halfway houses and expansion of existing facilities and additional short-term leases or rental of bed spaces both in Hawaii within the federal system and in private facilities on the Mainland.

But most importantly, he proposes diverting some of the prison budget to expanded drug treatment programs, both within prison and outside.

This is crucial. It is obvious that drugs or substance abuse lies at the root of the problems that bring the majority of people into the justice system. It is ultimately cheaper — as well as more humane — to spend public resources on getting to that root problem rather than simply locking up those who display the symptoms.

It is obvious that drug treatment is far from a miracle. The failure rate, at least the first or second time through, is relatively high. But the failure rate of incarceration without treatment is even higher.

We will always need prisons for the violent or hardened criminals within the system. Prison must also be there as a last option for those who refuse to cooperate with treatment efforts.

But a commitment of state energy and money into intensive, supervised drug treatment (such as is seen with the successful Drug Court program) is a far more sensible approach than the thought that we can ever jail our way out of our crime problem.

Lawmakers should make note of this policy shift and support it.

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