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Economics at root of ‘bias’

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The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is calling for changes in the state’s justice system to assure fair treatment of native Hawaiians, but more can be done outside than within court and prison walls. A three-year study by OHA confirms that Hawaiians fare badly in courts and prisons, but is less than convincing in suggesting removal of "racial disparities" from the justice system.

The report’s statistics show that the arrest rate of native Hawaiians is similar to the 24 percent of the general population, but their incarceration rate is close to 40 percent of those imprisoned. The reasons are less than clear, even when made in the report beside numerous anecdotal assertions of unnamed former prisoners and others.

The Hawaii court system’s inequity to Hawaiians "accumulates at each step along the way, from arrest to incarceration, to release on parole," said OHA Administrator Clyde Namuo, former deputy administrator of the court system.

The report calls for reducing arrests related to "quality of life offenses" such as homelessness, releasing more defendants prior to trial, shortening probations and using alternatives to incarceration to connect with families, communities, education and other supportive factors.

Most of the reason for the high incarceration rate is economic, a reflection of native Hawaiians’ lowest mean income of all ethnicities in the state. The report says defendants who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer are assigned public defenders, who "are overburdened and underresourced with higher caseloads than private attorneys." They are called "public pretenders" by former native Hawaiian prisoners quoted in bold type in the report.

The report attempts to put too much blame on institutional racism, which is overly simplistic. Indeed, socio-economic factors strongly come to bear in who commits crimes, why crimes are perpetuated and in treatment through the court system. But rather than a singular focus on problems within the penal system for native Hawaiians, OHA and others should be looking just as avidly at the roots of the problem: how to improve socio-economic conditions of susceptible families and youth to avoid prison.

The report also says native Hawaiians convicted of crimes have reason to be concerned about the Hawaii Paroling Authority’s broad discretion in deciding on minimum prison sentences far beyond the offender’s expectations.

"It’s the luck of the draw," a former prisoner says in bold type.

The difficulty of dispensing equal justice is painfully evident; even judicial leanings toward leniency might be blocked by economic factors.

"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," former Judge Ron Becker, a criminal justice professor at Chaminade University, told the Star-Advertiser.

The complexities of incarceration of native Hawaiians, certainly, reach beyond prison walls. Dealing with those factors would be most workable and fruitful in the community, workplace or household prior to the crime.


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