Ice epidemic grows, overwhelms prisons
As the state Legislature convenes this week, lawmakers will consider many ways of combating the ice epidemic and how to pay for proposed solutions. Gov. Linda Lingle's administration will have an equally important role.
In a four-part series beginning today, The Advertiser focuses on the serious impact ice is having on Hawai'i's crowded jails and prisons, and on the lives of those behind the walls.
By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer
Hawai'i's jails and prisons are costly and crowded, and the "ice" epidemic is fueling pressure for change. TOMORROW Hawai'i women are being locked up at a rate that's outpacing men, and charges against them arise mostly from drug problems. TUESDAY Hawai'i struggles to control a growing number of drug addicts on probation and parole while it's grappling with a flawed new law. WEDNESDAY Some inmates take a bridge to freedom while others stumble back to prison. Hawai'i searches for answers.
Hawai'i's jails and prisons are costly and crowded, and the "ice" epidemic is fueling pressure for change.
Hawai'i women are being locked up at a rate that's outpacing men, and charges against them arise mostly from drug problems.
Hawai'i struggles to control a growing number of drug addicts on probation and parole while it's grappling with a flawed new law.
Some inmates take a bridge to freedom while others stumble back to prison. Hawai'i searches for answers.
More than a decade after ice became one of the state's most serious problems, public awareness and concern are at an all-time high.
Decisions made in the coming months could have long-lasting consequences for Hawai'i's criminal justice system and the lives of many who tangle with it.
Jails and prisons have no space for the continuing flood of inmates whose crimes stem from the ice epidemic, and there is growing pressure to steer more drug users into treatment programs outside.
But there has not been enough money available to make that happen. And most agree that Act 161, a year-old law requiring treatment rather than incarceration for first-time drug offenders, has major flaws. Some want to fine-tune the law, but others want to junk it.
There also is pressure to repair and expand crumbling correctional facilities and to ensure that the public is protected from the theft and violence often associated with ice abuse.
More than 1,300 Hawai'i inmates are doing time in private Mainland prisons because there aren't enough cells for them here, and the number of state prisoners is expected to increase by up to 1,000 more during the next four years.
Costly either way
Building more prison space would require a major investment and decades of debt payments, or require a controversial political decision to have a private company build and run new facilities that the state would pay to use.
Filling the old lockups beyond their designed capacity and failing to repair them is dangerous and could lead to costly lawsuits, and expanding treatment programs for addicts wouldn't alleviate the pressure overnight, even with widespread political support and adequate money.
Ice and the prison dilemma promise to be among the hottest issues during the legislative session that begins Wednesday. Key lawmakers, Gov. Linda Lingle and Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona say that both subjects are high priorities. And with most legislators up for re-election this year, the political climate is ripe for action.
The challenge, officials say, is to strike an effective balance: Prevent drug abuse, rehabilitate offenders who can be helped, be ready to lock up those who pose a threat, and keep released inmates from committing new crimes.
But some community activists say the danger is that the state will allow pressure to become hysteria that leads to simplistic and punitive short-term solutions. Or that politicized bickering will allow the problems to fester.
"My concern is that the administration wants to do someone about ice, and the Legislature wants to
do something on ice but it's an election year, and I'm just afraid they're all going to want to do their own thing and not play together," said Pam Lichty, president of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai'i.
"It would be shocking if they managed to do nothing," said Lichty, whose nonprofit group favors more treatment for drug abusers. "But I'm very concerned about the jockeying that a lot of people are predicting will happen."
Others warn that treatment shouldn't be viewed as a panacea, and that addiction does not excuse crime.
"The great flim-flam is that treatment works and prison doesn't," Honolulu Prosecutor Peter Carlisle said. "Nothing could be further from the truth. It sounds like there's this magic pill that you give, called treatment, and it always works, and that prison serves no function other than to make black-booted, brown-shirted prosecutors and police go home smiling because they've done something mean."
Treatment should not be a revolving door that allows criminals to take advantage, he said.
"If they've gotten treated, they commit a crime, treated, commit a crime, treated, commit a crime, well then my attitude is the treatment hasn't worked and it's time for prison to work, which will have the salutary effect of incapacitation," Carlisle said.
"It may not be rehabilitation, but it certainly keeps them from committing more crimes."
Turning lives around
Some addicts do have a criminal mindset that will not change, but treatment and close supervision can and does turn others' lives around, said M.P. "Andy" Anderson, CEO of the Hina Mauka treatment center.
"And that's what we want: responsible tax-paying citizens," he said. "We need to find ways to empower the folks who are incarcerated to get them clean and sober and into recovery so they can work and be productive citizens. That's what the goal is, to find a way to do that so that we're not having all of our folks locked up."
Proposals floated so far are wide-ranging: Tougher sentences for ice dealers and repeat offenders. More prison space, here or on the Mainland. More treatment programs, inside and out of prison. A "boot camp" to instill discipline and teach job skills. And a heavy focus on preventing young people from ever starting with drugs.
Almost any course of action raises serious questions.
If new prisons are built, where should they be built? How should they be financed? Should they be run by state employees or privatized?
If treatment programs are created or expanded, who should pay for them? How will their effectiveness be measured? How many chances should someone be given to get clean?
Though the ice problem is worse in Hawai'i than in many other places, drug abuse and prison crowding are major issues across the nation.
California, Arizona, Washington and other states have moved away from tough sentences for some drug users, sending them to treatment programs instead.
The changes are driven partly by liberals who strongly believe in rehabilitation, but also by conservatives who don't like the high cost of locking people up.
"There's an understanding now that incarceration is not only not effective at addressing drug abuse, but it's counterproductive," said Roger Goodman, director of the Drug Policy Project for the King County Bar Association in Seattle.
"Legislatures are now, more and more, setting up systems of diversion programs in lieu of incarceration," said Goodman, who has met with lawmakers in Hawai'i and other states to promote such policies.
"What's interesting about these other states taking action is that it's pretty much driven by fiscal reality," said Lichty at Drug Policy Forum. "So it isn't like all of a sudden they've seen the light, and people are good after all if you just give them a chance. It's more like 'we don't have the money to keep doing this and so we have to think of a smarter way.' "
Reach Johnny Brannon at email@example.com or 525-8070.