Pubdate: Sun, 21 Feb 2010
Source: Honolulu Advertiser (HI)
Copyright: 2010 The Honolulu Advertiser
Author: Rob Perez


Budget Cuts Forcing Programs to Treat Fewer Offenders, Delay Services

By the time she was 16, Christianna Maglinti, a high school dropout 
and runaway, had been arrested dozens of times, had been using 
crystal meth and was well on her way to becoming another inmate in 
Hawai'i's overcrowded prison system.

Then she was referred to Girls Court, an alternative Judiciary 
program that takes a more holistic approach to dealing with 
offenders. Like the 10 other specialized treatment courts in Hawai'i, 
this gender-specific one addresses the underlying issues - domestic 
abuse, drug addiction, teen pregnancy and the like - that often 
prompt troubled individuals to offend again and again, usually 
landing behind bars.

To try to stop that cycle, the specialty courts provide treatment to 
deal with the underlying issues, regular monitoring to keep the 
clients on track and swift sanctions if they violate the rules.

Today, Maglinti, 20, has her high school diploma, has been off drugs 
for more than two years, is employed by a nonprofit organization that 
helps mentally challenged adults and frequently talks to wayward 
girls about how she has turned her life around.

She credits Girls Court with playing a major role in that turnaround.

"They're really not just trying to punish you," said Maglinti, whose 
success story was highlighted recently in Chief Justice Ronald Moon's 
State of the Judiciary address. "They're trying to help you."

Like the rest of state government, however, that help is being 
squeezed by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

As a result of budget cuts, the 11 treatment courts, including those 
for adults with mental health issues and families with substance 
abuse problems, are handling fewer cases, providing less treatment 
and delaying more services, Judiciary officials say. At least one 
court is at risk of running out of treatment money by the end of the 
fiscal year, five have wait lists for accepting new clients, and 
O'ahu's Adult Drug Court has reduced its treatment capacity by nearly 
20 percent.

During his address to the Legislature last month, Moon warned that 
more cuts could have a devastating effect on court operations, even 
hinting at the possibility of eliminating the alternative 
service-oriented programs altogether.

Because of cuts already imposed, the chief justice said, the O'ahu 
drug court reduced its treatment capacity to 130 clients, from 160, 
leaving 30 defendants on a wait list and likely headed for prison. 
Putting 30 more people into an already overcrowded prison system 
would cost the state $1.5 million annually, Moon said, compared with 
the roughly $877,000 budget for the O'ahu drug court for this fiscal year.

He framed his address by underscoring the successes of the treatment 
courts in substantially reducing the rate of recidivism among offenders.

Moon's speech highlighted the challenge facing state decision-makers 
amid the severe fiscal crisis.

One of the fundamental questions: Can the state afford to maintain 
these alternative programs, which have produced impressive results 
but reach relatively small numbers of clients, even as the 
Judiciary's core services have been reduced because of budget cuts?

Long-Term Savings

The treatment courts represent nearly 4 percent - or more than $5 
million - of the Judiciary's $139 million budget and handle several 
hundred cases each year, compared with the thousands that go through 
the regular system.

"I would hate to see this discontinued," said Public Defender Jack 
Tonaki. "Everyone is having to make tough choices."

The challenge is made all the more difficult, Tonaki and other 
advocates say, because the treatment courts have helped people stay 
out of prison, saving the state millions of dollars in incarceration 
costs and the much-harder-to-quantify social costs resulting from 
domestic violence, substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment, 
juvenile delinquency and other problems that typically influence the 
offenders' behavior.

Yet the regular court system, the advocates say, is ill equipped to 
deal with these cases. Cutting funding to the alternative programs 
could save money in the short run but result in far greater costs to 
the state and society in the long term, advocates say.

"Obviously, in terrible times, everyone is constrained, and I would 
argue that money should come from other parts of the criminal justice 
system that are overused, like corrections," University of Hawai'i 
professor and criminologist Meda Chesney-Lind said in an e-mail. "I 
wouldn't support across-the-board cuts that tend to cripple small 
initiatives. We know that huge swaths of the current system are not 
functioning optimally, so they really need to have new ideas infused 
into the work they are currently doing."

Referral Required

The treatment courts deal mostly with nonviolent repeat offenders, 
many of whom had probation revoked one or more times. A review team 
that includes the client's attorney (usually a public defender), 
prosecutor, judge, case manager and others must recommend the 
defendant for the program, with the judge having the final say. 
Clients are referred to treatment services, such as counseling, based 
on their needs, appear before a judge at least monthly to review 
their progress and are rewarded for successes or quickly sanctioned 
for violations.

The programs often involve participation of family members, who are 
considered key to the offender's long-term rehabilitation. In Girls 
Court, for instance, a parent is required to attend each court 
session and participate in counseling and other court-ordered activities.

The idea behind the courts is that if the underlying problems 
contributing to the person's troubles aren't addressed, the person is 
likely to offend again and pass such behavior on to the next generation.

The alternative programs, most started within the past decade, have 
produced encouraging results.

The average recidivism rate among those who graduate from the 
specialty courts is 6 percent to 8 percent, compared with roughly 50 
percent among those on general probation, said Dee Dee Letts, 
treatment court coordinator on O'ahu.

Among the first four groups who completed the Girls Court program 
since its inception in 2004, the number of reported runaways dropped 
94 percent, law violations fell 84 percent and detention home 
admissions declined 66 percent, according to a December 2009 
evaluation by Janet Davidson, a Chaminade University assistant 
professor of criminology.

When the girls did run away, the number of days spent on the run 
dropped 84 percent, Davidson's study found.

Girls Court recently was designated a best practice by the federal 
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

It is established on the premise that girls enter the system for much 
different reasons than boys and need to be treated differently to 
break the cycle of repeated offenses.

Circuit Judge Karen Radius, who was instrumental in the establishment 
of Girls Court, one of the first of its kind in the nation, believes 
so passionately in the program that she continues to preside over it 
on a volunteer basis. Having retired from the bench at the end of 
2009, Radius now spends about three days a week volunteering her time.

"I can't leave you guys," she told a group of girls and their 
families in a recent court session. "You're too important to me."

Support Is Key

That kind of support was key to convincing Maglinti that the people 
associated with the court really wanted to help, she said. She 
initially resisted their overtures, reflecting a reluctance - fueled 
by the trauma in her life - to trust anyone.

Her father had died when she was 9. Her mother abused drugs. The 
family eventually became homeless, and Maglinti and her siblings were 
placed in foster homes by the state. Maglinti rebelled by repeatedly 
running away. She was physically abused on the streets and turned to 
drugs and fighting to cope with the pain.

Once in Girls Court, Maglinti said, she realized how her life had 
come undone by the wrong choices she made, and she began to trust 
that the people there were trying to help her.

"It kept giving me motivation to make the right choices," she said.

Establishing trust also was critical for Andre Stovall, a former 
University of Hawai'i basketball player on probation for a drug 
offense in the 1990s.

Stovall, 47, who suffers from major depression and has a history of 
drug abuse, said his willingness to open up to people interested in 
helping him has been key to his success in Mental Health Court.

Before starting the program nine months ago, Stovall had been in and 
out of prison for repeated probation violations, including continued drug use.

But during a recent court session, Judge Michael Wilson praised 
Stovall for being clean and sober the past nine months.

As a gallery of fellow Mental Health Court clients applauded, the 
judge gave Stovall a $20 gift card and a sobriety coin marking his 
success so far.

If Stovall keeps on track, he expects to graduate from the program by 
April 2011.

The main difference between Mental Health and regular court, he said, 
was that the latter didn't address the causes of his behavior problems.

"Mental Health Court has been a refreshing change," Stovall said. "It 
helps you break down barriers of trust. I now believe in the people 
in the program, from the judge to the bailiffs . They're like a 
separate family for me."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake