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Treatment cheaper than new prisons – Justice Wilson

Michael Wilson, associate justice of the state Supreme Court, speaks Thursday afternoon during the 62nd graduation of the Maui/Molokai Drug Court Program in 2nd Circuit Court. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

WAILUKU — As state legislators weigh spending $500 million for a new prison, they also could consider funding a less costly treatment program with a 20-year track record of “remarkable” change, state Supreme Court Associate Justice Michael Wilson said Thursday.

“You’re part of that change,” Wilson told those at the 62nd graduation ceremony of the Maui Drug Court program of intensive treatment and supervision.

“Maui represents a powerful Drug Court at a time when things are changing in the criminal justice system,” Wilson said. “It’s powerful because it’s a long-standing court, has over 1,000 graduates and it has a giant in the Drug Court world — and that is our Chief Judge Cardoza.”

For the ceremony Thursday afternoon, family members and friends of the graduates filled the courtroom gallery of 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Joseph Cardoza, who serves as the Drug Court judge.

During a court hearing before the ceremony, seven men had charges dismissed or terms of probation ended early in their criminal cases.

“For two years, I battled against myself and my addiction in pursuit of the ultimate prize,” said graduate Chris Tronolone. “And today I have it — a life free of drugs and crime. I’ve waited so long for this moment.”

Wilson’s experience with treatment courts goes back to his years as a Circuit Court judge on Oahu when he presided over Drug Court and Mental Health Court, as well as criminal court.

He was appointed to the Supreme Court in April 2014. Wilson took the lead in organizing environmental court in Hawaii, which is one of only two states in the nation to have such a court.

Wilson was selected to lead the Correctional Justice Task Force, which has looked at ways to reduce the state’s inmate population and create a system focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

“In the criminal justice system, we’re about to make a huge investment, the biggest investment, which could be a $500 million new jail,” Wilson said. “Or should we use some of those resources for treatment?

“We have an opportunity to do something very, very unique in a wonderful way in the criminal justice system.”

After the ceremony, Wilson said one strength of the Maui Drug Court program is its use of a Maui Community Correctional Center dormitory, where some participants begin treatment.

“That can be targeted treatment with the Drug Court participants together so they don’t get distracted,” Wilson said.

Defendants receive services that provide them support, including classes and eventually employment.

“It’s a very complete program,” Wilson said. “And it’s a proven program. It’s not just Maui’s program. Maui just happens to do it in a very successful way.”

Drug Court “reduces recidivism through treatment in a process that’s much cheaper than incarceration,” Wilson said.

In Hawaii, the cost of incarcerating someone is at least $40,000 a year, compared with up to $10,000 for Drug Court, he said.

“But Drug Court’s far more successful,” Wilson said. “We’re just talking about whether people are committing crimes. 

“Isn’t it cool? The nice thing is we have something that’s proven for 20 years.”

Speaking at the ceremony, Wilson drew a comparison to Olympians, who train almost daily for an event.

He noted the involvement in Drug Court of public defenders, prosecutors, police and others — “which is a statement about how much and unusual this program is.”

“Because what takes place is not just training every day for a single event but training every day for life,” Wilson said. “Life in the sense we all care about — being part of a community, loving your family.

“Every person has a beauty, every person has a power.”

The graduates now can see when someone is on a destructive path, Wilson said.

“You’ve got the skills to help,” Wilson told the graduates. “You’ve got the skills to love and return to your families and make your community a great place and show the heroic part of the human spirit — to be so down on addiction and to come back and succeed, to be ready for the community. 

“You’re out there to help others who may be on the edge of relapse. That is powerful.”

“At the end of the process there’s something remarkable that happens — an intervention where that person is woken up,” Wilson said. “There’s a new path that’s been shown, but it takes a lot of strength. It’s one of the most amazing things.”

Wilson said he spoke at the graduation ceremony because of his support for the program.

“Coming here is a great way for me to be reminded about what a great program it is,” Wilson said. “I am so privileged to have been part of it and I want to do everything I can to support it.”

Comparing Judge Cardoza to Obi Wan Kenobi of “Star Wars,” Wilson said the judge has been “my sensei all these years.”

Along with a “chief judge with a lot of wisdom and experience,” he said the Maui Drug Court has a “very experienced staff” and “real drug counselors — that’s their calling.”

“So what a wonderful team they have,” he said. “You have a team that supports people who otherwise engage in antisocial behavior. To be able to have a good team that can prevent that is so valuable. It saves lives. It saves people from the fear of crime. It’s an example of how we, as a community, can do something well through government.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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