Under pilot, some repeat law-breakers in Chinatown are being given a choice: Jail or treatment

The idea is to get homeless drug addicts into residential drug treatment programs right after they’re arrested.
Published: Jan. 30, 2023 at 3:54 PM HST|Updated: Jan. 30, 2023 at 7:02 PM HST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Jail or treatment.

It’s a choice now given to some homeless addicts who are repeatedly caught breaking the law.

Under a pilot project, treatment is approved by the court before a judge ever rules on the case.

The idea is to get homeless drug addicts into residential drug treatment programs right after they’re arrested.

Not only does it limit the amount of time they spend in jail, it also prevents them from immediately being released back to the streets, advocates say. And that’s a problem many in the community say needs to be addressed.

Frustration with repeat offenders

On the outskirts of Chinatown, Fort Street Mall is plagued with homelessness and drug addiction.

“Every single day, I find drug users. I see drug dealers,” said John Fielding, volunteer safety minister at the Cathedral Basilica for Our Lady of Peace. He has taken dozens of pictures of addicts who’ve turned the church steps into a personal drug den.

He says he recently found one man inside the sanctuary, apparently trying to burn a book.

“He took our matches here and he was trying to light those things on fire,” Fielding said.

He says if troublemakers are actually arrested, they’re often back doing the same things within a day or two.

“We realized when we were going to do Weed and Seed in Chinatown that there were a lot of chronically homeless folks,” said city Prosecutor Steve Alm. “And virtually all of them have mental health or drug and alcohol problems.”

Alm says over the past year and a half, officers arrested approximately 140 homeless people in Chinatown.

Nearly every case involved drug possession.

The city prosecutor believes the only way to get a handle on what’s happening is by tackling the problem at its root.

“We’re tying to do that now at the very front end,” Alm said.

‘The right thing to do’

The pilot project is called Substance Use Disorder Assessment Fast or SUDA-Fast.

“What we’re doing is trying to look at each case, and if we’re going to agree to probation later, which is the case in most of them, we should agree to it right away and do what we can to get them out of jail and into treatment,” Alm said.

Since April at least 19 non-violent offenders have been referred to drug treatment for an assessment, the state said.

And while the programming is strong, stabilization beds are scarce.

Alm said without a dedicated source of funding, the program can’t expand. So he’s calling on the city and governor for help “to somehow create hundreds of beds for mental health, and drug and alcohol in order to deal with this problem statewide.”

Anton Krucky, director of Honolulu’s Department of Community Services, agrees the creation of more stabilization beds is critical.

He said the city recently purchased a building for a project on Dillingham Boulevard, saying officials are actively looking for more.

When asked how many are needed, Krucky replied, “That’s hard to answer.”

But he said the old State Hospital in Kaneohe could be one place for treatment.

Back on Fort Street Mall, Fielding says the expansion of drug treatment and mental health services is crucial.

“We need to be able to open these facilities back up,” he said.

But until then, his church patrols will continue.

“I’m OK,” he said. “I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing because it’s the right thing to do.”

HNN asked the state Department of Health how many of the 19 offenders in the pilot completed treatment. Officials said they did not have that information.