Original story published on NBC News by Christopher Cicchiello on Oct. 1, 2022 click here to read.

Hawaii reached the milestone earlier this year of having no girls in its only youth correctional facility — a first in state history, officials say.

It was a jubilant moment for the facility’s administrator, Mark Patterson, who has worked to reduce the youth prison population for nearly eight years.

A decade ago, more than 100 adolescents were imprisoned at the facility. When Patterson arrived two years later, the number had dropped by about half, according to data from the state’s Department of the Attorney General and Office of Youth Services.

For Patterson, who came to the youth facility after running Hawaii’s Women’s Community Correctional Center, reducing the girls population required decreasing the number of young people put on probation, as violators often got sent to his facility. It also meant addressing the fact that they were the “most vulnerable of the high-risk” and often had suffered heavy trauma related to things like sexual exploitation, abuse at home or exposure to drug addiction, he said.

“When I talk about zero girls in the system, it’s because it was a conscious effort to focus on a particular profile of girls in our systems,” Patterson said.

Patterson and other state officials and juvenile justice reform advocates set out to keep at-risk youth from engaging in behaviors that get them sent into the system in the first place, an effort that, when applied broadly, helped reduce overall female probation sentences by more than two-thirds from 2014 to 2021, according to the state Department of the Attorney General. Experts say Hawaii can be a model for other states on how to institute alternatives to the more traditional punitive models of justice for girls and boys.

A new path

Since 2001, the number of girls in residential placement settings nationally, which include correctional facilities and shelters, has trended downward, according to 2019 data from the criminal justice reform group the Sentencing Project. But while girls account for about 15% of incarcerated youth, they make up about a third of those locked up for low-level status offenses like truancy or curfew violations — a problem Hawaii has confronted head-on.

With Project Kealahou, Hawaiian for “the new pathway,” the state’s Department of Health aimed to address prevalent trauma in “at-risk” girls through community-based services like peer mentoring and therapeutic intervention focused on repairing family relationships. 

The six-year, federally funded effort was modeled on an earlier program, Girl’s Court, that sought to address the needs of at-risk girls and juvenile offenders by providing them with a supportive environment and positive role models, including in recreational settings. Project Kealahou also used youth development programs to offer activities, like hula dance groups and paddling classes, as part of its “trauma-informed care” — a model that recognizes the impact that trauma has had on incarcerated youth and how coping mechanisms and criminal activity often intersect. 

Because the power dynamic in prisons can resemble abusive relationships, trauma-informed care tries to ensure that incarcerated adolescents don’t re-experience past damaging experiences, and to that end it provides guidelines that seek to foster mutual respect among youths, caregivers and justice system officials as well as collaboration between therapists and correctional officers on how to interact with inmates.

Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center
For the first time in the state’s history, Hawaii has no girls in its only youth correctional facility.Tia Hartsock

The approach resulted in “significant improvement” among the incarcerated youth in terms of depression levels, emotional issues and mood scores, experts said, prompting state lawmakers to extend the program’s funding.

Tia Hartsock, who served as director of Project Kealahou, said she and other officials studied the records of at-risk girls to help Patterson and others determine where the incarcerated youth “fell through the gaps” in the education and mental health systems and other areas and to prevent that from happening in the future.

“I was thinking, how bad did we have to fail at every touch point of these kids to end them up in the prison?” she said.

A place of healing

Patterson used the information to put an emphasis on healing the incarcerated girls through therapeutic programs. 

He enlisted the help of the Vera Institutea national nonprofit that works to reduce girls’ incarceration. Sifting through state data, they found that girls were being locked up largely for misdemeanors or probation violations like running away from home, truancy and petty theft — behaviors often related to trying to survive on the streets, said Hannah Green, a program manager for the nonprofit’s Initiative to End Youth Girl’s Incarceration.

Kimberly Takata, who works as a counselor at the nonprofit Pu’a Foundation, which seeks to help the girls at the youth correctional facility make the transition out of jail, trains previously incarcerated young women to be mentors for the girls and shares her story as part of the rehabilitation effort. 

Born while her mother was incarcerated at the youth facility in the 1980s, she said she endured sexual trauma at a young age and began numbing her shame with drugs and running away from home before getting locked up there herself. 

“And I had to carry that on my own and not say anything to anybody because I was so ashamed. … So that’s where survival mode comes in. You’re on the streets, and you do whatever it takes to get money,” Takata explained. 

Takata, who has witness the changes in the state’s juvenile justice system, said the support system set up for the girls has been transformative. 

“People are understanding trauma now,” she said, adding, “This is my passion, to help the youth and women because I was there. … It’s just an amazing full circle.”

Under Patterson’s leadership, which included advocating for more state spending on the youth correctional center, the 500-acre property nestled at the base of the Olomana mountain, transformed into a sprawling, rehabilitation-focused facility. 

Where once there was just the prison and a school for incarcerated youth, the newly rebranded Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center now boasts on-site vocational training programs, a center for victims of sex-trafficking, an adolescent homeless shelter and opportunities for youths to farm and tend cattle. 

“When you actually work and till land and produce a product, and then eat it or provide for the community, there is a sense of worth of who you are and where you fit into the community,” Patterson said. “When you touch the land, the land touches you, and all that rubbish in you will transform into the land so that you can be whole again.”

Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center
The Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center is now a sprawling, rehabilitation-focused facility. Tia Hartsock

Model for the nation

In addition to its work in Hawaii, the Vera Institute has undertaken similar efforts in New York City, Maine, and Santa Clara, California, all of which reached zero girls for periods of time over the past two years. Chief among the nonprofit’s strategies was working with government leaders and communities on how best to disrupt the pathways juveniles take into the justice system.

“I think any state can replicate it,” said Green. “It just takes the intentionality, it takes the commitment, it takes the focus.

Green also said she thinks states can make similar strides with incarcerated boys, provided they focus on gender-specific behaviors that can lead to imprisonment, like feeling pressured to exhibit “macho” behaviors that can translate into violent offenses such as sexual assault and robbery. Vocational programs also help male adolescents overcome contributing problems like drug use and build their self-confidence, said Melissa Waiters, whose nonprofit, Kinai ‘Eha, helps juveniles at the Hawaii correctional facility and elsewhere get GED degrees and find work in fields like construction and even medicine.

The cost of keeping young people out of jail pales in comparison to the cost of lost opportunities and job prospects for those who are locked up, she said. 

“We have to help these kids because they’re our future,” she said. “And so they just need some support. They just need some guidance.” 

Nate Balis, who works on juvenile justice reforms at the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation, said Hawaii’s example could help shift the national mindset away from imprisonment for troubled youth. The key, he said, is to focus on shrinking the probation population and create alternative pathways for youth with vocational and other developmental programs.

“We have to do both,” Balis said.

Patterson, who recently applied for a grant which would partially fund an on-campus mental health program for minors, said Hawaii has provided the proof.

“We’re not saying that we’ve solved a social issue,” Patterson said. “We’re saying that the treatment and the system that we put together for care is working.”