‘When one rises, we all rise’

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

As the administrator of the Maui/Molokai Drug Court, Dean Ishihara helps program participants turn their lives around.

Two months from now, Dean Ishihara will attend a graduation ceremony at Hoapili Hale, the 2nd Circuit courthouse in Wailuku. There will be no tasseled caps, no gowns and no bands belting out “Pomp and Circumstance.” But there will be tears of joy, expressions of heartfelt gratitude and new beginnings.

It’s something Ishihara looks forward to four times a year. As the administrator of the Maui/Molokai Drug Court, he celebrates graduations in February, May (which is National Drug Court Month), August and November — and every time, he says, his heart swells with pride. “When I see each graduating class, I think about when they first started . . . and how far they’ve come,” he said.

Since he took the helm of the Maui/Molokai Drug Court in 2014, Ishihara has watched men and women address the underlying issues that contributed to their criminal behavior and triumph in their struggle against substance abuse. “I’m part of a program that helps people rebuild their lives,” he said. “It’s the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had.”

The Maui/Molokai Drug Court began in 2000, and since then, 625 participants (593 on Maui and 32 on Molokai) have graduated from the outpatient substance abuse treatment program, which combines drug treatment with mental health and medical follow-up, sober support meetings, frequent court interaction, drug testing and intensive probation monitoring. The program requires participants to be employed, pay taxes, maintain payment toward restitution and other financial obligations, and perform 30 hours of restorative justice. In addition, before participants graduate, the program ensures they have either passed their general educational development (GED) high school equivalency test or earned a competency-based diploma.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, there are now more than 3,100 drug courts in the United States, half of which are adult treatment drug courts (there are drug courts in each of Hawaii’s four judicial circuits). Substance abuse can create a ripple effect — it not only affects the individual grappling with the disease, but also impacts his or her family, friends and community — which is why many of these programs have adopted the tagline “all rise.” Apart from the judicial allusion, Ishihara says, “It means ‘when one rises, we all rise.’ “

And the verdict is in: drug courts really do work. According to the National Institute of Justice, drug court programs nationwide have a tangible effect on criminal recidivism — and the Maui/Molokai Drug Court is no exception.

“More than 85 percent of those who have graduated from the Maui/Molokai Drug Court program do not have convictions for new felony offenses within the time period we measure recidivism — this is a three-year period from the point of completion of our program,” Ishihara explained.

There’s also the cost-effectiveness of diverting nonviolent offenders with substance use problems from incarceration into a supervised treatment program. According to the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, the cost to incarcerate an individual in a correctional facility is $140 per day. By contrast, Ishihara said, “Our estimate for providing treatment in the community through Drug Court is a little more than $15 per day per client.”

Long before he became the administrator of the Maui/Molokai Drug Court, Ishihara was a familiar face around Hoapili Hale. Shortly after moving to Maui in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, the Oahu-born-and-raised Ishihara was hired as a Hawaii State Judiciary social worker and quickly learned the intricacies of the criminal justice system. Realizing he’d found his true calling, Ishihara went on to earn a master’s degree in social work, and over the years, held multiple positions — from juvenile and adult probation to supervision to presentence investigations — with the state Judiciary. He also worked for the Lili’uokalani Trust, a nonprofit organization that provides resources to ensure the well-being of orphaned and impoverished children.

Today, as the administrator of the Maui/Molokai Drug Court, Ishihara is clearly passionate about his work — and the program itself. “Sometimes it’s hard to contain my enthusiasm about this thing called Drug Court,” he said. “We’re here, we aren’t going anywhere, and we will continue to make a difference.”

To learn more about the Maui Drug Court, contact the program administrator at 442-3850. For information about the Molokai Drug Court, call 553-3397.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.