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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, July 19, 2001

No easy answers for criminally ill

Since misery loves company, a group of state officials have flown off to a conference on the Mainland focused on the issues of criminal justice and the mentally ill.

The hope is that the officials will return from the Boston conference inspired to resolve a problem that has been allowed to fester for far too long: What to do with mentally ill people who have been accused of crimes?

Morally and legally, we are obligated to treat such people and help them recover from their illness. But as with so many unpleasant tasks, we don't want to think much about this obligation.

It is someone else's problem unless one of these individuals wanders away from the State Hospital in Kane'ohe.

State Health Director Bruce Anderson says there are at least three solutions to the problem of the criminally mentally ill: building a high-security psychiatric unit at the Kane'ohe hospital; building and staffing such a unit at one of our existing prisons; or building such a facility elsewhere.

The common denominator here, of course, is money. Our prisons are already overcrowded and we seem unable to decide on how or where we would build new prison facilities. The old "forensic" unit at Kane'ohe has been abandoned, and the trend there is toward less, not more, institutional treatment.

And building a free-standing facility for the criminally insane would face fierce and almost certainly fatal community opposition no matter where it was located.

It's possible that the Boston conference (sponsored by the U.S. Justice Department) will produce breakthrough ideas for Hawai'i. But that's a long shot.

For now, it is an unhappy fact of life for the state and for the Health Department that individuals who are found to be criminally insane will continue to be sent to Kane'ohe.

That means the hospital has to be ready to offer treatment and to provide the kind of security that will keep those people safely and securely confined until they are well.