HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii is poised to launch a new program aimed at giving low-level offenders a choice: Jail or treatment.
Similar programs have been successful in a handful of mainland cities, and Hawaii officials hope to have a pilot up and running by 2017.
The program comes amid growing concern about the number of homeless people and those with substance abuse or mental health issues behind bars.
Honolulu Police Department data released last month showed that of the 16,000 arrests made on Oahu last year, 61 percent involved people who were severely mentally ill or abusing drugs.
"We have this population of low level offenders and those that struggle with mental illness that don't fit the standard system that really just get lost," said Heather Pierucki, director of behavioral health at Helping Hands Hawaii.
More than a dozen social service, civil rights, and drug treatment groups have teamed up with law enforcement for the Hawaii jail diversion program.
Heather Lusk, executive director of the CHOW Project, said the program is about getting people help.
"They arrest them but instead of taking them downtown to book them they say, 'Well because I found this on you I need to do something. I can either follow through with the arrest or take you to this case manager,'" Lusk said.
Depending on their needs, participants could be offered a variety of services, including drug treatment, housing, and mental health services.
In Seattle, eight out of 10 people in a similar diversion program were homeless prior to participation. Some 40 percent ended up getting housing, and just over half received drug treatment.
On Oahu, the program would start small. Program leaders hope to launch it in one community.
"We've talked about Waikiki, Chinatown or Kalihi," said Lusk.
Initially, the program would be limited to people arrested for low level drug crimes and prostitution. Later, the list might be expanded to include other charges, including those related to homelessness and trespassing.
Advocates believe the program could save government agencies millions of dollars.
"The money it costs for jail and incarceration. The time that police take in arresting people and all the money that's associated with hospitalization and treatment for people who are chronically homeless," said Marya Grambs, of Partners in Care.
The next step to get the program off the ground: To design how all the agencies will work together and to find as much as $1 million to pay for it.