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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 9, 2002

Alternatives to prison must be accountable

The state attorney general's office is investigating Fresh Start Inc. of Waipahu, one of only two "structured living" facilities in Hawai'i for offenders who are either on parole or probation or are awaiting trial.

Some Fresh Start residents and their friends and relatives have told Advertiser investigative reporter Jim Dooley they felt pressured into forking out thousands of dollars to stay in the program. If they didn't pay up, they were warned that they might be sent back to jail, they said.

We can't predict the outcome of that investigation. However, we can say we're astounded there is state or county oversight or regulation of such live-in rehabilitation programs or process to gauge their success.

Like nursing homes, these facilities warrant close scrutiny because of their volatile and vulnerable clientele.

As it stands, the courts and Paroling Authority can place convicted and suspected nonviolent offenders in "structured living" programs. That means residents and their families are at the mercy of program operators, who might have unorthodox ways of doing business.

For example, Fresh Start requires its residents to qualify for welfare, which means they must claim a "disability" such as drug addiction that prevents them from working. The result is that most if not all the residents suffer from, or claim to have, a substance-abuse problem.

However, the facility isn't licensed to provide substance-abuse treatment.

The Health Department required Fresh Start to get licensed after a resident died of a drug overdose last year.

None of this is news to the Paroling Authority, which has asked lawmakers for $850,000 for improvements. Of that sum, $50,000 was allotted to develop a system to evaluate the structured living programs. Its request died in the Legislature earlier this year.

The Legislature should reconsider its decision. Whatever the outcome of the attorney general's investigation, the state is going to have to monitor these institutions closely. They can provide a valuable service, but it is a service that cannot operate autonomously.

It's kinder and more cost-effective to send nonviolent offenders with substance-abuse problems to facilities where they can get treatment and begin reorganizing their lives — but only if those facilities are state-approved, accountable and reputable.