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'Aloha Spirit': Initiative Keeps Hawaiian Youths Out of Detention, In Community

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Young people work on a farm that provides programs for at-risk youth. (Hookuaaina)
Young people work on a farm that provides programs for at-risk youth. (Hookuaaina)
HONOLULU April marks the 25th anniversary of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which has greatly reduced the United States' youth-detention population.

Established by The Annie E. Casey Foundation in 1992, the initiative has spread to nearly 300 counties across the nation. It's proved to be a way to safely reduce the juvenile-justice system's reliance on detention and provide alternative reform methods. The initiative, also known as JDAI, came to Hawaii eight years ago.

Robert Browning, chief family court judge in Honolulu, praises JDAI for its ability to keep families together and youths in their communities.

"The welfare of our community is about what we call the 'Aloha Spirit,' about the love that we provide to those in need, and there's no population more vulnerable than children," he said.

Browning says since JDAI was introduced, the population at Hawaii's youth facility has been reduced from between 70 and 100 kids down to fewer than 20. He says his first priority is public safety, but that most youths post no threat to society and in fact are better served by staying in their communities.

Dean Wilhelm is executive director, alongside his wife, of Hookuaaina, a Hawaiian culture-based program that provides opportunities for at-risk youths, such as young people who come from abusive homes or have had problems with drugs. In the Oahu-based youth-farm program, Wilhelm says the cultivation and preparation of traditional Hawaiian foods provides a sense of community and connection to the land and culture.

He says the program helps heal youths who might otherwise be caught up in the criminal-justice system.

"It's basic life skills that we're working on," said Wilhelm. "Kids who come here and initially can't look you in the eye, have feelings of distrust and things of that sort. After a while, they're sharing more, they're looking at you in the eye, they're able to sit still and be respectful in a conversation."

Nationwide, the number of youths detained has dropped by 44 percent in JDAI districts, according to a 2013 report from the Casey Foundation.

Nate Balis, director of the juvenile-justice strategy group at the foundation, says one of the reasons JDAI has taken hold so strongly is that it is proved to work.

"Jurisdictions have found that the playbook of JDAI delivers on what it promises," he stated. "It allows them to not only reduce the number of young people in secure detention but do so in a way that does not harm public safety, and rather protects public safety."