HONOLULU - Four of every five teens who appear in Judge R. Mark Browning's family court, he told Hawaii lawmakers Friday, abuse some sort of substance: alcohol, cocaine, heroin, gasoline, cold medicine or "a number of other things you've never heard of and probably shouldn't."
As Hawaii courts process about 7,000 young people each year, Browning's math means about 5,600 of them are using some illicit substance. But with just 60 slots in its juvenile drug court, Browning said, the state can barely begin to offer suitable services to them.
Browning, the senior judge in the 1st Circuit family court, testified before the House Finance Committee in support of House Bill 2659, a measure that would provide mental health and substance abuse treatment for juveniles in the court system.
"The investment I'm asking you to make with respect for moneys is significant," Browning told lawmakers. "But it needs to be significant. It needs to be in the millions of dollars."
Law enforcement agencies, advocates and justice experts also lent support to the measure. Its price went unspecified, but David Hipp, the executive director of the Office of Youth Services in the Department of Human Services, told lawmakers that therapy and treatment for 50 "high-need youth" would cost $700,000, and $300,000 for 50 "moderate-risk youth." Costs for family therapy rise in Hawaii, where interisland travel requires multiple flights to complete a program.
But such programs would likely prevent many young people from winding up in trouble later, he said. Half of first-time arrestees in Hawaii are of middle-school age, he said.
"It's like the old Fram commercial," Hipp said after the hearing. "You can buy a $12 oil filter now or rebuild your engine later for $2,000."
Hipp's office oversees the state Youth Correctional Facility, which presently houses 43 young offenders and monitors another 13 on parole.
"These kids are just disconnected," he said. "I would consider most of the kids I have overall low risk to public safety, high risk to themselves."
The measure made it through committee and will head to the House floor. Two other bills aimed at helping at-risk youth also went through the committee Friday. House Bill 1697 would provide a five-year pilot program to establish "safe places" for youth, to help them deal with issues around domestic violence, drugs, suicide and pregnancy. House Bill 1756 would establish and fund after-school teaching and sports programs - called Resources for Enrichment, Athletics, Culture, and Health, or REACH - for middle school students.
Rep. Mele Carroll, a Democrat who represents Haiku, Hana and Kaupo, was the lead introducer for the three bills.
"Unfortunately our youth suffer from serious lack of services, whether it's substance abuse, mental health issues or the need for quality after school opportunities, and it is our responsibility to step up to provide for them," she said in an email. "While these programs may appear to have a high price tag, this investment is essential to the future of the State of Hawaii."