In the pilot, some repeat offenders in Chinatown face a choice: jail or treatment

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) — Prison or treatment.

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

As part of a pilot project, the treatment will be approved by the court before a judge even rules on the case.

The idea is to place homeless drug addicts into inpatient drug treatment programs immediately after they are arrested.

Not only does it limit the time they spend in jail, but it also prevents them from being promptly released back onto the streets, supporters say. And that’s an issue that many in the community say needs to be addressed.

Frustration with repeat offenders

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

“Every day I find drug users. I see drug dealers,” said John Fielding, honorary security minister at the Cathedral Basilica for Our Lady of Peace. He has taken dozens of photos of addicts who have turned the church steps into a personal drug den.

He says he recently found a man at the sanctuary who appeared to be trying to burn a book.

“He brought our matches over here and tried to light these things,” Fielding said.

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

“When we set out to do Weed and Seed in Chinatown, we realized there were a lot of chronically homeless people there,” said the city’s Attorney Steve Alm. “And virtually all of them have mental health or drug and alcohol problems. “

According to Alm, officers have arrested about 140 homeless people in Chinatown over the past year and a half.

Almost all cases involved drug possession.

City prosecutors believe the only way to get a handle on what’s happening is to get to the root of the problem.

“We’re going to do that right at the front now,” said Alm.

‘Do the right thing’

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

“What we do is look at each case and if we later agree to parole, which is the case in most cases, we should agree to that immediately and do whatever it takes to get her out of prison and into treatment,” said Alm.

Since April, at least 19 nonviolent offenders have been referred for drug treatment for evaluation, the state said.

And while programming is strong, stabilizing beds are scarce.

Alm said the program could not be expanded without a dedicated funding source. So he’s asking for help from the city and the governor “to somehow create hundreds of mental health, drug and alcohol beds to help deal with this problem statewide.”

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

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

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

But he said the old state hospital in Kaneohe could be a place for treatment.

Back at Fort Street Mall, Fielding says expanding drug treatment and mental health services is critical.

“We need to be able to reopen these facilities,” he said.

But until then, his church patrols will continue.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I’ll 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 had completed treatment. Officials said they didn’t have that information.