Hawai`i Is So Close to Ending the Incarceration of Young Girls

The state had two months with no young people in the girls’ unit of its only long-term placement facility. It’s reason to celebrate, but the work isn’t over.
Nazish Dholakia Senior Writer // Lindsay Rosenthal Initiative Director, Ending Girls' Incarceration
Oct 04, 2022
Image courtesy of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility (HYCF).

This summer, Hawai`i made headlines for a milestone achievement several years in the making. Finally—and for the first time—there were no girls being held in the state’s only long-term juvenile placement facility, the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility (HYCF).

“Hawai`i achieved a milestone that few states ever hit,” said Hannah Green, program manager for Vera’s Ending Girls’ Incarceration (EGI) initiative. EGI partnered with HYCF, the Office of Youth Services (OYS), and the Pū’ā Foundation in 2018 to launch the work to end the incarceration of girls and gender-expansive youth in Hawai`i.

HYCF stayed at zero for two months—until August—when one girl entered the facility. She was sent to HYCF by a judge who didn’t know what else to do. Available community resources were limited, and the girl had run away from multiple placements.

It’s a textbook case. Across the country, girls are often incarcerated on the unjust grounds that it’s for their own safety and well-being—not because they pose any public safety threat. This disproportionately harms girls of color and those who identify as gender expansive. Most girls and gender-expansive youth in the juvenile legal system are incarcerated on low-level, nonviolent offenses, and girls who are detained have often had histories of violence and trauma, including sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. A girl might, for example, be detained on shoplifting charges after running away without any money or resources for survival.

This dynamic plays out across the country, but it is especially apparent in Hawai`i. In 2018, almost 50 percent of girls’ admissions to detention were on criminal contempt charges—often for “disobeying” the court or court orders—or on probation violations for running away—often after escaping abuse.

Profound racial disparities—evident across the U.S. criminal legal system—also play out in Hawai`i, where it’s Native Hawaiian, Samoan, and Filipino youth who are overrepresented. Vera’s diagnostic assessment of Hawai`i found that racial disparities only increase as girls move deeper into the system. And although the system does not systematically collect information on sexual orientation or gender identity, national data points to significant disparities for gender-expansive youth.

Trafficking is a major challenge in Hawai`i. So are homelessness and substance use,” Green said. “Judges have legitimate concerns for girls’ safety, and so they default to detention.”

But system involvement causes more harm and can compound underlying challenges.

“Girls experiencing trafficking, homelessness, and other crises don't need a locked facility—or the threat of a locked facility. What they need is connection to meaningful supports, programming, and economic stability, and places where young people can feel safe and heard—where they can build relationships,” Green said.

Community-based responses

Ten years ago, HYCF held about 25 young people in its girls’ unit. That number dwindled over the last decade, thanks to reform efforts led by Family Court and OYS, in collaboration with the state’s child serving agencies and community-based partners. There have been intentional efforts to build out community-based programs and services, like the peer support specialist program housed at Pū’ā Foundation; Hale Lanipolua, an assessment center for survivors of trafficking; and Pearl Haven, Hawai`i’s first long-term residential care facility for survivors of trafficking and sexual exploitation.

“Instead of punishing girls and gender-expansive youth for the harm and discrimination they experience, Hawai`i is investing in transformative solutions that promote their well-being,” Green said.

“Ending incarceration doesn’t mean we completely eliminate consequences—but it is about fundamentally changing our mindset from a punitive approach to a healing approach,” said Mark Patterson, who has been the administrator of HYCF since 2014. “So many girls were sent to me for their own ‘safety,’ and I kept saying the correctional facility is not designed with their safety in mind. We need to be asking what girls need to be safe and investing in that.”

HYCF’s achievement is a reason to celebrate, but the work isn’t yet done to ensure that zero becomes the norm. With the girls’ unit back to one, stakeholders are actively working together to find an appropriate alternative. The facility still holds about 16 boys, although that number is a significant drop from the 200 it held 50 years ago. And while numbers at HYCF’s girls’ unit are hovering close to zero, there are still young people being held in the girls’ unit at Kapolei Juvenile Detention Center, a secure short-term detention facility—although the most recent data available shows a 62 percent decrease between 2018 and FY 2022, from 186 to 71 admissions in short-term detention.

Hawai`i isn’t the first or only place to make significant strides toward ending the incarceration of girls and gender-expansive youth. For more than a year, Santa Clara County, California—which has a population greater than all of Hawai`i—has not held a single girl in its long-term facility and has maintained an average daily population of two or fewer young people in the girls’ unit of its short-term detention facility.

And since February 2021, there have never been more than two girls in New York City’s juvenile placement facilities, with long stretches during which those facilities were completely empty. This reflects a 98 percent decrease since Vera first started working in New York City in 2017.

What’s next

The next objective for advocates in Hawai`i—and one that will hopefully enable the state to zero out girls’ incarceration entirely—is to improve coordination among judges, probation officers, and community-based service providers. Although there has been a definite upswing in the community-based options available, case managers aren’t always aware of all those resources. And in some cases, there is still the misperception that girls and gender-expansive youth can only access services through involvement in the juvenile legal system.

But legal system involvement is never the answer to meeting young people’s needs. Counties, cities, and states—from Santa Clara County to New York City to Hawai`i—are investing in community-centered programs and services so that girls and gender-expansive youth can find the support they need in their communities. These solutions should serve as models for the rest of the country to follow.