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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 7, 2008

COMMENTARY
Hawaii incarceration rate proves costly

By Meda Chesney-Lind and Marilyn Brown

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Prisoners at Halawa Correctional Facility: The public needs to understand the correlation between prison costs and higher education costs.

Advertiser library photo

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The U.S. has the dubious distinction of leading the world in terms of incarceration.

What about our own state? Hawai'i now incarcerates more than 6,000 inmates. That is up from 5,053 in 2000 a 20 percent increase just since the turn of the century. Between 2000 and the end of 2006, Hawai'i's prison population increased by 2.8 percent a year, far surpassing the national average increase of 1.7 percent.

Over-representation of people of color in the U.S. prison system has long been a problem. More than 60 percent of those in prison are racial and ethnic minorities. Here in Hawai'i, Native Hawaiians are over-represented in youth and adult prison populations.

Native Hawaiians account for about 20 percent of Hawai'i's population. Yet a profile of youth at the Hawai'i Youth Correctional Facility in 1999 revealed that 52.6 percent of the boys and 63.2 percent of the girls in custody at HYCF were Native Hawaiian. This over-representation is reflected in the adult inmate population, with roughly 40 percent of inmates being Native Hawaiian.

Many Native Hawaiians in prison have been imprisoned before. Only about a third of Native Hawaiians doing time are there for the first time; this means that two-thirds of Native Hawaiians in prison are there on subsequent incarcerations.

What's happening?

Research conducted in Hawai'i on those released on parole in 1996 and followed for two to three years found that more than half were returned to custody (53.9 percent). Only a quarter of those returned were returned for new crimes. This means that three quarters were returned for technical violations of parole (often a failed drug test).

One other significant point: Recent research on Hawai'i's inmate classification system by the Criminal Justice Institute suggests that many of Hawai'i's inmates, male and female, are technically "over-classified" which means they are being held in costly facilities, some thousands of miles from their homes and families, unnecessarily.

According to the Criminal Justice Institute, "approximately 60 percent of nonviolent inmates on the Mainland are minimum- or community-custody" and could be housed in minimum- or community-custody beds. Significantly, Hawai'i has approximately a third of our 6,000 inmates in Mainland prisons.

Let us not forget cost in this discussion. Incarceration does not come cheap. Corrections budgets have long been the fastest growing segment of state budgets. Taxpayers are paying an estimated $40 billion a year for prisons. Feeding and caring for an inmate costs about $20,000 a year on average, with construction costs running about $100,000 per cell. The Pew Center on the States noted that between 1987 and 2007, the amount that states spent on corrections doubled. A 29-month sentence for a drug offender in Hawai'i can cost taxpayers more than $113,000.

There are clear trade-offs here. As the Pew study documents, higher education has been a clear loser. Between 1987 and 2007, corrections budgets rose by 127 percent while higher education funding increased by only 21 percent. Colleges and universities, in turn, passed the cost of higher education along in the form of steep tuition increases. Consider that the University of Hawai'i-Manoa increased its tuition 20 percent for both in-state and out-of-state students in 2006, giving us the dubious distinction of having the highest tuition increase of any public university in the nation in that year.

Generally, the public does not link corrections costs and college tuitions, but they should, because every dollar spent on cells is taking money from other important government services, including access to an affordable public university education.

The nation also loses in this trade-off. At a time when our country needs to invest in education for our citizens to face the challenges of a new century, college educations have become increasingly unaffordable for average families.

What can be done to reduce mass incarceration in Hawai'i? Like 18 other states that have rolled back mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, Hawai'i can start by repealing mandatory minimum sentences for crystal meth and shifting resources to drug treatment; we should also revitalize probation and parole so that drug offenders are directed to treatment after relapse rather than prison. Hawai'i should also implement provisions of the Community Safety Act, passed in 2007, to prevent ex-inmate recidivism by providing reintegration programming Repealing bad laws and energizing promising policy initiatives is a good start at finally getting smart about crime in Hawai'i.

Meda Chesney-Lind is a criminologist with the University of Hawai'i- Manoa. Marilyn Brown is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Hawai'i- Hilo. The views expressed here are their own. They wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.