Conditional Release in Hawaii–Is the System Failing?

On 11/07/2010, the Star Advertiser published a story on Hawaii’s Conditional Release program (“Violence Caused by Freed Patients”)–where mentally offenders are released into the community after they have been adjudicated–that was inaccurate and misleading. Neil Gowensmith posted a response here a few days ago. I am attaching my letter to the editor. It will be interesting to see if they actually have the guts to print it. As for my part, I doubt it, but I am always ready to be surprised.

Dear Editor:

The 11/7/2010 Star Advertiser article on violence by “freed” state hospital patients is factually incorrect, misleading, and sadly for the writer and paper’s reputation, a piece of shoddy journalism. The article is salted with innuendoes, unsubstantiated assertions, and rhetorical devices (“latest example,” unnamed “critics,” “glaring omission,” critics are “increasingly questioning,” “slip through gaps,” “the latest symbol of what’s wrong”) which mislead the reader into thinking that Hawaii’s conditional release system is failing and poses a danger to the public. The article is lacking basic facts that would allow the reader to determine for themselves if there is a problem. Anecdotal evidence is provided as examples of the “failed system.” With the exception of Dr. Sheehan’s encouraging comments that re-hospitalization rates and “sentinel events” involving violence have been stable for the past 4 years, proof that the system works, the article completely fails to substantiate its sensationalistic argument with facts. None of the so-called “critics” produced one single fact to support their assertions. Do anecdotal reports from one disgruntled treatment program director prove that the “system has crashed?” Does this person know the facts?

Dr. Neil Gowensmith of the Department of Health provided a few facts that a responsible story would have included:  
• A third of people on CR have committed misdemeanor charges.
• More than half are on CR for non-violent charges.
• Sentinel events for CRs have not gone up over the past 4 years.
• Rehospitalization rates of CRs (12%) have not gone up over the past four
years.
• Rearrest rates of CRs (11%) have not gone up over the past 4 years.
• The rearrest rate is lower than that of persons on probation (20%) and people
released from jail (40%).
• Of those CRs who are rearrested, 87% are arrested for misdemeanor offenses.
• Fewer than .5% (one-half of one percent) of all people on CR is rearrested
for a serious felony. (That rate is lower than the rate for the general
US population.)
• More than 90% of people on CR in Hawaii spend more time on CR than they would
have served for the maximum jail or probation sentence for the same charge –
sometimes up to twenty times as long.

Neither was the “glaring omission” cited by a former state employee, where a defendant is released once deemed permanently unfit to stand trial, noted to be an extremely rare instance, and represents, not a failure of the system, but a feature of U.S. law (Jackson v. Indiana). The instances proffered to “exemplify the state’s oversight failure” are sad, but rare, exceptions to the rule. Based on the facts, the Hawaii CR system seems to be working pretty well at protecting both safety of the public and the Constitutional rights of the offenders.

My mama always taught me to back up my assertions with facts. Since the public relies on the Star Advertiser for facts concerning the public mental health system in Hawaii, please do your readers the favor of providing accurate and reliable information.

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