Hawaii’s prison system is housing fewer inmates these days.

Last year, the state saved $2.5 million by holding fewer prisoners on the mainland, and the state’s inmate population decreased by 4 percent overall.

A new report credits this to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) that Hawaii implemented in 2012. The recent report by the Urban Institute details how successful the initiative was for the 17 states that participated.

The data-driven initiative aims to reform the criminal justice system by making it more efficient, reducing prison populations, lessening crime rates, saving money and increasing public safety.

Ultimately, Hawaii could save $130 million by 2018 by reinvesting $42 million in victims services, prison and community-based treatment programs, and probation and parole supervision, according to the report.

The JRI model works by having support from all government branches, with state officials working side-by-side with criminal justice and policy experts, collecting data statewide and tracking offenders through the system.

In June 2012, two pieces of JRI legislation were signed into law: Sentate Bill 2776 and House Bill 2515.

These bills required a risk assessment screening for pretrial defendants, shortened the length of incarceration for first-time parole violations and added two members to the Hawaii Paroling Authority.

In addition, the bills provided $1 million in additional funding to community-based treatment programs, lessened the length of probation given for less serious felonies and allowed judges to use probation for certain second-time drug offenders.

The report highlights the progress Hawaii has made toward improving the prison system since implementing the laws in 2012.

  • The prison population between July 2012 and May 2013 dropped from 6,073 to 5,848, a nearly 4 percent decrease, along with 15 percent fewer prisoners being housed in Arizona, where Hawaii contracts with a private prison company to house offenders. As of Feb. 3, the population stands at 5,236, with 3,866 in Hawaii and 1,370 in Arizona. Bringing home all the Hawaii inmates housed in mainland prisons is one of Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s goals.
  • Without the JRI impact, the number of those incarcerated in Hawaii and on the mainland could grow to more than 6,000, according to projections from the report.
  • In 2013, Hawaii put $3.4 million into expanding treatment programs, hiring more victims and correctional staff members, and establishing a research and planning office in the Department of Public Safety.
  • An interagency group was formed with representatives from the public safety department, the judiciary, the prosecuting attorney’s office and the state public defender. This group created a strategy using risk assessment data of prisoners to make swift decisions on pretrial offenders regarding their detention and release, with the goal of reducing the amount of time detainees are held in jail before their trial.
  • Prisons have also been addressing the delays that some offenders faced before they could go on parole; an increasing number have been sentenced to supervised release with electronic monitoring, which has contributed to the population decline.

Why the Need for Change?

The corrections population in the state grew by more than 18 percent between 2000 and 2011, and was expected to increase an additional 3 percent between 2012 and 2018. A third of Hawaii’s prisoners were housed in Arizona in 2011, which cost the state $40 million.

In addition, the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that a 117 percent increase in the pretrial population between 2006 and 2011 was partially caused by needless delays in the pretrial decision making process.

Data showed that a large pretrial population, long sentences for parole violations, mandatory sentencing for drug offenses and too many parole denials were the main contributors to the high prison population in the state.

A screenshot from the Urban Institute report reflects the prison population decline. (Urban Institute)

According to the report, two-thirds of all inmates eligible for parole were held beyond their eligibility release date, in order to complete prison-based programming. However, only 14 percent of the inmates eligible for parole actually required in-custody programming based on their needs-assessments.

Kat Brady, a longtime prison reform advocate and the coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons, supports JRI but says progress has been slow.

While Hawaii did reduce its prison population by 4 percent, Brady believes the key issue still needing to be addressed is the imprisonment of too many non-violent drug offenders, instead of putting them in treatment programs.

“To have non-violent people in facilities that are traditionally violent is counterproductive,” Brady says.

In order for Justice Reinvestment to really work, she believes there needs to be a complete analysis of who is in prison. That would show who would actually be better served in community programs that specifically address their “pathways to incarceration.”

Still, Brady thinks that the state is moving in the right direction. “We’ve got to really get the rubber on the road and get some community programs going, move prisoners into programs successfully,” she says.

Brady believes an increase in the number of people with mental health issues getting arrested lead to prison population growth, despite crime rates going down. She says that prisons and jails have become unofficial mental health community centers.

“I see people who are just lingering in prison and I think, our community needs so much help. They’re languishing in a place that has very little positive reinforcement,” says Brady.

More mental health programs, substance abuse treatment programs and culturally based programs, among others, are needed, says Brady.

“Many people think there’s one silver bullet to take care of everything. Unfortunately, life is not that easy. We need to have an array of programs that actually address the needs of our people,” she says.

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