January 30, 2014
The incident at Roosevelt High School on Tuesday, a frightening episode that ended when police shot a knife-wielding teen, generated headlines nationally. It also should spark a discussion locally about how Hawaii uses law enforcement and social services to solve problems with truant and runaway teens.
There are aspects of the Roosevelt shooting that complicate matters, setting it apart from any general rules one might want to craft. Although the boy, 17, had a truancy record, he also was armed. In addition, he had been diagnosed with mental illness including schizophrenia, for which his mother was pursuing treatment. Management of these cases is difficult, and it won’t be clear whether this particular occurrence might have been handled better until all the facts are in.
But in the meantime, there are disturbing statistics suggesting that Hawaii has not settled on the right approach with its troubled youths, overall.
Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist and University of Hawaii professor, told the Star-Advertiser that the most current available figures show that runaways represent a disproportionate share of the juvenile arrests in Hawaii, unlike most other states. The 2009 data she cited was startling: Of all juvenile arrests here, 36.7 percent were for running away — by far the nation’s highest proportion.
These are status offenses, crimes only because of the person’s age. While such laws are meant to flag minors on the verge of trouble, bringing them under the watchful eye of society, what often happens is the teens fall further off the safe path, and the problems deepen.
Fortunately, there’s momentum building for a change in direction.
David Hipp, executive director of the state Office of Youth Services, hopes to open the first “assessment center” later this year at an undetermined Kalihi site, a project funded last legislative session with a $400,000 appropriation.
When the pilot project launches, Hipp said, police in the Kalihi area and the rest of District 5 would bring juvenile runaways and truants here, instead of to the police station, where staff would determine what services might help them. They’d be given a civil citation and a chance to do follow-up work, sometimes involving family therapy; later, if the program is successful, the teen’s criminal record would be expunged, he added.
The youth office has a request in the administration’s supplemental budget bill to fund the next two centers, one each on Maui and Kauai, he said.
This is only one of several pieces of legislation moving through state Capitol hearings that seek alternatives to juvenile detention, bills deserving of full consideration.
Among them is Senate Bill 391, to launch a two-year pilot establishing a network of “safe places” where youths can go to access services; this proposal got as far as conference committee review last session and was carried over to 2014.
There is also House Bill 2037, seeking $50,000 to continue Project Kealahou that targets adolescent girls who have endured trauma for special treatment.
Yet another measure, HB 2490, follows up on the recommendation of the Hawaii Juvenile Justice Working Group. The bill would reform the way juvenile detention is applied to cases, with the goal of reserving the youth detention space for those posing a higher risk, while alternative approaches are tried in lesser cases.
Hawaii seems to be lagging behind other states in implementing such strategies, Hipp said. And that’s all the more reason why Hawaii should lose no more time in redirecting its programs aimed at helping its troubled youth.
Surely some will always end up in the criminal justice system, but branding so many of them criminals at the outset can’t be the default option.
Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Editorial. “Change how we handle runaways.” Published Jan. 30, 2014.
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