Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a former probation officer, was clearly pleased with the passage of two “Justice Reinvestment” bills intended to begin to reform Hawaii’s troubled criminal justice system.

On Wednesday he was beaming as he posed for photo after photo with groups involved in the initiative known as “JRI” — a data-driven approach to reducing corrections spending and decreasing crime that was launched to great fanfare last summer.

JIR has involved a wide range of local stakeholders that participated in a system-wide examination of Hawaii’s system by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in partnership with the Pew Center on the States and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

While the new laws will not immediately lead to Abercrombie’s goal to return local prisoners incarcerated in Arizona prisons (Hawaii has maxed out on bed space), the administration and officials in the judicial and executive branch believe they have taken an important step in that direction.

“The measures before us today — HB 2515 and Senate Bill 2776 — reflect that collaborative effort,” said the governor. “With the enactment of these bills, I believe we are taking the next step forward in our commitment for control of our criminal justice system, to exercising resources in a sensible and clear-sighted, clear-headed manner in Hawaii, and strengthening the capacity for people to return to society who have been separated from it.”

The two measures will increase the amount of restitution paid to victims from an inmate’s account; add staff for victim services in the Prosecuting Attorney offices, the Department of Public Safety (which manages state prisons) and the Crime Victim Compensation Commission; eliminate delays in pre-trial risk assessments; expand the parole board from three to five members; and allocate $1 million to community-based treatment programs.

Asked if Justice Reinvestment could transform Hawaii’s criminal justice system, Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald was careful not to overstate things. But he called the bill-signing “an important day.”

“This is obviously a first step,” he said after the ceremony, which was held in executive chambers at the Capitol. “I think what’s important about this is that it was based on an evaluation of data — a very, in my view, level-headed assessment of what results we are intending, in terms of when we take a particular approach, are we getting the most effective result in terms of public safety and in terms of the use of our funds.”

Read the full press release from the governor.

Not Everyone On Board

Besides the chief justice and the governor, the leaders of House and Senate public safety committees, 1st Circuit Court Judge Steve Alm, corrections officials, victim advocates and other stakeholders were in attendance for the bill-signing.

Noticeably absent was Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, a critic of JRI, which he thinks could erode public safety.

Abercrombie insisted Wednesday that the new laws would “enhance” public safety. He also dismissed criticism that the bills had been watered down, arguing instead that language had instead been “refined” and that law-making is a collaborative process.

The governor described the JRI laws “as important as anything we have done” in the 2012 session. They dovetail, he said, with initiatives to overhaul the state’s antiquated information-technology system, which has made information sharing a challenge.

Recktenwald said the data collection and sharing would prove valuable.

“Now that we have that information, judges will have it in front of them and be able to make decisions about whether it’s appropriate to release a defendant, and under what terms,” he said. “So, now there is a phase of going forward and implementing the various changes and the various proposals that are a part of these bills. And we’re committed to doing that in a way that is expeditious and also works in conjunction with our partners in government who we have to work with in some instances in these areas.”

While Abercrombie was vague on whether JRI would be part of his 2013 package — other JRI bills did not make it through session — a key state senator said the Hawaii Legislature would continue to work on criminal justice reform.

“This is just the beginning,” said Will Espero, chair of the state Senate committee that oversees public safety, including state prison. “You never get everything you want the first time. And this, as the governor said, sets the foundation, and from here we are going to be able to do other things and improve the system, and at the end of the day, at the end of the administration, you will see that this is probably one of the most important measures and efforts that the Abercrombie administration will be embarking on.”

The ACLU of Hawaii, which is suing the state and the company that runs the Arizona prisons where Hawaii inmates are held despite allegations of mismanagement and abuse, welcomed the new laws. The ACLU has said the state has not moved fast enough to implement reform that could have prevented conditions it believes contributed to the deaths of two Hawaii inmates in 2010.

“The two Justice Reinvestment Initiative Bills signed today are a strong step in the right direction,” staff attorney Laurie Temple said in a statement. “We hope that the Legislature and the Governor will continue to build upon these efforts in the years to come.”

Temple added, “The United States incarcerates more people than any other country — we are 5 percent of the world’s population, but we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners — and the policies that have led us here do not make us any safer. The JRI bills signed by the Governor today will help Hawaii to focus its limited resources on those policies that improve public safety, and will help us stop the practice of sending Hawaii’s people, and Hawaii’s tax dollars, to for-profit mainland corporations.”

Asked if the government had done enough, Kat Brady, head of the reform advocacy group Community Alliance on Prisons and a longtime critic of Hawaii’s criminal justice system, chose to accentuate the positive.

“There’s always stuff we can do more,” she said. “But I am really grateful that we have a really good platform for collecting research, collecting data, so that we can make better, more thoughtful decisions on policy making.”

Brady continued: “There’s still plenty that we can do to eliminate mandatory minimums, that kind of sentencing. I was happy to hear the governor say that he wants the judiciary to have more discretion, because that’s why we have a judiciary. Because we trust their discretion. So, I am really looking forward to next session.”

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