Penned In

Lest it be said that all I do is criticize the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, I will direct your attention today to a thought-provoking study they’ve just released on Native Hawaiians in Hawaii’s criminal justice system.  I won’t give it my unqualified seal of approval–after all, the term “disparate treatment” in the title implies a lot more than disproportionate representation and the usual barriers and difficulties encountered upon release–but for an organization that is (theoretically) dedicated to the needs and betterment of Native Hawaiians, this is a worthy topic of study and action.  (And if I may be permitted a little judgment, far more worthy of attention than some of the pet vanity project receiving OHA funding, not to mention the barrels of money poured into lobbying on the Akaka Bill.)  Among the points made by the report (from the OHA press release):

  • Of the people serving a prison term in Hawai‘i, approximately 50 percent are housed in facilities on the mainland. Of this population, about 41 percent are Native Hawaiian, the most highly-represented group. While incarcerated out of state, these people are further disconnected from their communities, families and culturally appropriate services for re-entry.
  • Native Hawaiians do not use drugs at drastically different rates from people of other races or ethnicities, but Native Hawaiians go to prison for drug offenses more often than people of other races or ethnicities.
  • Once released from prison, Native Hawaiians experience barriers that prevent them from participating in certain jobs, obtaining a drivers license, voting, continuing education, obtaining housing and keeping a family together.

I will question the assertion that Native Hawaiians don’t use drugs at different rates that the rest of the population.  Granted, studies of drug use by ethnic population are legion and far from exact, but the situation is more complex than OHA paints it in their release.  For example, at least one study has found significantly higher rates of persistent smoking and drug use among pregnant women of Hawaiians ancestry.  And anyone who has seen the devastation of the ice epidemic in the Islands wouldn’t be surprised to hear that treatment admissions for use of amphetamines and methamphetamines among Asian and Pacific Islanders far outstrips the rest of the population.   I understand and even applaud the desire of OHA to help lower the number of Native Hawaiians entering the criminal justice system, but playing games with the statistics to bolster their case helps no one.  (Except maybe, those looking for more grant money by appealing to the OHA line.)

Of course, this does lead to the question of what OHA is planning to do with the results of their study.  The easy answer is, “culturally-sensitive interventions.”  But what does that really mean?  If I’m a local woman struggling with these problems, am I going to be comforted by the notion that someone is really working on a culturally sensitive intervention to my family?  Personally, I’d be a lot happier with an approach that was proven to be effective over one that raised my ethnicity over everything else.

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