Bias in the justice system needs scrutiny


POSTED: Saturday, July 25, 2009

THE number of state prison inmates serving life terms has more than quadrupled over the past quarter century, satisfying public calls for stiff sentences but adding enormously to the taxpayer cost. Hawaii is among 16 states where at least one-tenth of the inmates are serving life sentences, according to a new report. The incarcerations and racial characteristics call for a fresh look at crime and punishment.

The figures compiled by the Sentencing Report, a research and advocacy group that calls for ending life sentences, reveal the success of victims rights organizations, prosecutors and law-enforcement agencies and a decline in the faith of rehabilitation.

The number of people behind state bars has increased by 600 percent since 1972, reaching the present prison population of 2.3 million people. Of those, 140,610 are serving life terms, up from 34,000 in 1984.

A Hawaii consultant reported five years ago that the state's rate of convicted inmates rose from 151 per 100,000 residents in 1995 to 269 per 100,000 residents in 2001. The Sentencing Report says that 412 Hawaii inmates - 11.6 percent of the prison population - are serving life terms, 47 of them on sentences of life without parole.

The report includes what it says is the first national collection of state-level data by race and ethnicity, showing that 48.3 percent of life-termers are African-American, considerably higher than the 37.5 percent black representation in the general prison population.

It states that 25 of those serving life terms in Hawaii are black, 95 are white and 14 are Hispanic, but it does not address the more relevant issue of the number of convicts - and of those serving life terms - who are native Hawaiian.

Just as the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was a reminder that allegations of anti-black bias in law enforcement persist, concern that Hawaiians are not treated equally in the justice system cannot be easily erased.

The Department of Public Safety reports that Hawaiians account for 39 percent of the prison population while comprising only 20 percent of the state's population. By one report a decade ago, more than half of the females and 60 percent of the males in the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility were Hawaiians.

In testimony to the Legislature in March, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs asserted that the state's policies “;may be racially biased as it imprisons large numbers of native Hawaiians.”; OHA testified in support of a bill that would have created a task force to study the causes of the large numbers of Hawaiians behind bars. The bill was approved by the Senate but died in a House committee.

The disproportionate number of African-Americans and Hispanics doing time nationally and native Hawaiians in prison in Hawaii in large part reflect the economic disadvantages of those ethnic groups. Any bias against Hawaiians or any other ethnic group in the justice system should not be tolerated.