Criminal Justice Reform


The Justice System cannot be Just so long as it functions as a wealth-Extraction point...

YPDA Hawaiʻi supports efforts to implement meaningful sentencing reform; to reduce repeat offenders, recidivism and over representation of minorities; to eliminate for-profit prisons and to remove non-violent offenders from prisons and to divert them, instead, to mental health, drug treatment and other community-based programs that have been proven to be more successful correctional tools than incarceration; and efforts to implement place-based, restorative justice methods, especially in Hawaiʻi where Hawaiian over-representation can be directly attributed, in part, to a disconnection from culture and community.


Hawaiʻi has a serious problem when it comes to its prison system. The state’s 40-year-old community correctional centers are dilapidated and horribly overcrowded, and the situation in these jails has now become a liability. Clearly something must be done to reduce crowding in these out-of-date facilities. But there exist two very different ideas of what that something should look like. More broadly, this situation represents a crossroad and we, as a society, have two possible ways to move forward.

The first path is the one state officials appear to be leaning toward: building newer, larger incarceration facilities and, thereby, anchoring our society more firmly to an antiquated and injurious punitive system that is sustained off of societal problems. Over the course of the last 20 years, it’s become clear that the draconian austerity of the prison system incurs a high and multi-faceted cost on the inmate. It’s also, clearly, a strain on overburdened state budgets, and on the taxpayers themselves. On top of this, the prison system has been shown to be less effective at keeping communities safe than what David R. Karp and Todd R. Clear, in their essay "Community Justice: A Conceptual Framework" (2000), refer to as “community justice” solutions.

These restorative, rather than punitive, solutions seek to heal and restore troubled people, returning them back to society in a condition in which they can be productive and contribute to society. This is the alternative path, and the one advocated for by the Community Justice Coalition, a network of organizations campaigning for criminal justice reform in Hawaiʻi. 

But moving Hawaiʻi away from the prison system won’t be easy. Every president since Richard Nixon—who first announced the “War on Drugs” in 1971—has adopted a “tough on crime” stance that is often replicated all the way down to the municipal level of government. Even neighborhood board members often take this stance, especially when it comes to the houseless. This attitude, and its resulting policies, has resulted in the highest incarceration rate in the world. Between 1970 and 2010, the number of people incarcerated in the United States grew by 700 percent. We now incarcerate almost a quarter of the prisoners in the entire world, while representing only 5 percent of the world’s population. At no other point in U.S. history—even when slavery was legal—have so many people been deprived of their liberty. Being “tough on crime,” it seems, is good politics, even if it’s bad policy.

In her 2003 book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis explains that the idea of prisons is so engrained in our societal consciousness that the alternative idea of a justice system without them is impossible to imagine for many people.

Prison abolitionists are dismissed as utopians and idealists whose ideas are at best unrealistic and impracticable, and, at worst, mystifying and foolish. This is a measure of how difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and families. The prison is considered so “natural” that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it (Davis, 9–10).

While some of our state lawmakers are advocates of restorative justice programs and diversion programs modeled after Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) Program to steer low-risk offenders away from the criminal justice system, others are simultaneously pushing for legislation that would establish a new, billion-dollar prison and upgrade additional, smaller correctional facilities around the state.

2018 Bills We Support


Additional Resources

Community Justice: A Conceptual Framework

Native Hawaiian Justice Task Force Report

Prison Policy Initiative Hawaii

Jailed State

Prisoners in Hawaii Are Being Sent to Die in Private Prisons in Arizona