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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, August 21, 2001

Crime only a symptom of far greater problem

There is a theory that keeping criminals off the streets is the best way to reduce crime. The hole in that theory is that most criminals are sent away for a relatively short period of time. Temporary warehousing doesn't rehabilitate inmates; it makes them more dangerous.

In Hawai'i, according to a compelling new study from the state Attorney General's Office, the average minimum sentence to state prison last year was 4.1 years. That's one-third higher than it was in a 1997-98 sample. But it's still only 4.1 years.

What happens to these inmates when they are released? According to the same study, 40 percent of those released on parole are back in prison within two years. Why are they back inside? Ten percent committed serious new crimes. The rest screwed up by technically violating the terms of their parole, including drug use.

That means there are large numbers of prisoners inside for drug and parole violations, not violent crimes, who are being warehoused in overcrowded conditions.

The data suggest that this approach doesn't work.

Paul Perrone, the research wizard in the AG's office, says the figures show the best investment in prison programs would be those that offer drug rehabilitation, job and work training, and encourage good associates.

You don't get much of that in Hawai'i prison facilities.

"We don't want to be sending people who need treatment to what is essentially a criminal's college, showing people how to become criminals,"says Al Beaver, Hawai'i Paroling Authority chairman. But because not enough treatment programs are available, the authority increases the prison time for inmates in hopes it will expose prisoners to more of the programs that do exist.

The numbers, however, argue that a substantial proportion of these inmates shouldn't even be in prison. Other studies suggest that nonviolent drug felons who are sent to mandatory residential treatment programs instead of prison are half as likely to be re-arrested — and treatment is one-third cheaper than incarceration.

If Hawai'i continues to lock up growing numbers of offenders for longer sentences — which is what the AG study shows we're doing — we'll soon have to build a new, bigger prison to handle the increase. That's even if Hawai'i remains able to send 1,200 or more inmates a year to Mainland facilities, an option that we may not always enjoy.

Hawai'i can build a new prison if it must, but surely the money could be better used in education, health and other critical areas. And, the numbers argue, it's a solution that will make the problem worse, not better, meaning we'll soon need yet another new facility.

Too much of the time, our prisons make things worse, not better. Isn't it time to start treating the disease instead of the symptoms?