Native Hawaiians are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system in Hawaii, according to a report released yesterday by the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
The study featured statistics showing that the percentage of native Hawaiians incarcerated is significantly higher than the percentage of Hawaiians in the general population and that native Hawaiians are more likely to get prison sentences, and longer prison sentences, than other ethnic groups.
OHA officials called the report groundbreaking because it uses numbers to show native Hawaiians are being treated disparately.
OHA Administrator Clyde Namuo said the study found that the justice system’s inequity to native Hawaiians "accumulates at each step along the way, from arrest to incarceration, to release on parole."
In 2008 about 25 percent of all arrested in Hawaii were identified as native Hawaiian, which is about the same as the 24 percent of the state’s general population that identifies itself as native Hawaiians.
However, Namuo said, citing the study:
» Native Hawaiians make up 39 percent of those incarcerated by the state criminal justice system, significantly more than 24 percent of the state’s general population.
» Native Hawaiians also are more likely than all groups, except American Indians, to be incarcerated once found guilty of a crime in Hawaii, the study showed.
» Native Hawaiians receive longer prison sentences than most other racial or ethnic groups.
» Native Hawaiians are sentenced to longer probation terms than most other racial or ethnic groups, except for Hispanics.
The report drew mixed responses.
Marsha Kitagawa, Judiciary spokeswoman, said, "The Judiciary looks forward to reviewing the report and will respond as necessary and appropriate."
Max Otani, administrator for the Hawaii Paroling Authority, said he found the results surprising and does not believe there is discrimination against native Hawaiians or any other group in the paroling process. "It’s not like we profile people or target a certain ethnic group," he said.
Attorney Richard Naiwieha Wurdeman, president of the Native Hawaiian Bar Association, said the study brings out what he has seen as a criminal defense attorney for native Hawaiian defendants for 17 years. "It’s really about time that we have all this documented so that we can make the substantial improvements that we need to address this disparate treatment of native Hawaiians," he said. "This has got to come to an end."
But attorney H. William Burgess, who has filed lawsuits opposing Hawaiians-only funding for OHA, said he saw no evidence in the study of systematic discrimination against native Hawaiians. "The mere fact that there is a disproportionate representation or a disparate impact on one group or another doesn’t indicate that there’s racial discrimination," he said.
Ron Becker, a criminal justice professor at Chaminade University and a one-time judge, said socioeconomic factors weigh greatly when deciding sentencing and parole.
"These numbers have more to do with their socioeconomic circumstances than their race, although people of color make up a larger percentage of our lower socioeconomic class of people," he said. "As a judge it’s difficult to put on probation someone who has no permanent residence, no permanent employment, no continuing relationships with anyone in the community."
Namuo said OHA will ask the Legislature to establish a task force to address the disparities and reform the justice system.
OHA staff conducted the study. Through a $181,440 legislative appropriation, it received assistance from the University of Hawaii Department of Urban and Regional Planning, the UH Richardson School of Law, the UH School of Social Work and Qualitative Research, the Justice Policy Institute and Georgetown University.