It could have been a huge embarrassment.

Just 48 hours before Gov. Neil Abercrombie was set to unveil a major initiative to overhaul Hawaii’s criminal justice system, four inmates escaped from the minimum-security Waiawa Correctional Facility on Oahu.

Fortunately for the administration, the four inmates were quickly recaptured, including two in the early hours of June 28 — the very day the governor introduced his “Justice Reinvestment” plan.

As the state embarks over the next six months on Justice Reinvestment — a data-driven approach to reducing corrections spending and decreasing crime successfully used in more than 10 states — it is not only a first step but relatively inexpensive and easy step toward criminal justice reform.

The hard part, however, will come when the administration takes its recommendations before lawmakers next session. The recommendations will likely include establishing treatment and training centers in residential neighborhoods to help prisoners re-enter society, something that could be of concern to constituents.

As the Waiawa escape underscores, as well as an attempted escape from Oahu Community Correctional Center just this week, residents may cast a skeptical eye on fixing a long-troubled system when it involves their own back yard.

Probation Officer in Chief

Despite the challenges, one major advantage Justice Reinvestment has is that it is strongly backed by the governor, who has identified public safety as part of his New Day plan.

While the return of Hawaii prisoners incarcerated in mainland facilities was not a top New Day priority — it comes on page 41 of the 43-page plan — the idea gained urgency when the governor announced shortly after his swearing in that he wanted to expedite their return.

Abercrombie considers himself close to the issue. As the governor said at the Justice Reinvestment conference at the Ala Moana Hotel June 30, his experience as a probation officer informs his decision making even now.

“You will not find anybody more prepared and more desirous of working with you and reflecting your conclusions than me,” Abercrombie told an audience that included judges, prosecutors, corrections officials and treatment advocates. “These recommendations are not going on a shelf, not going into the ether. I am going to be paying very close attention and getting back to you.”

Abercrombie promised that the state’s new chief information officer, who began work this month, will be closely involved in improving the state’s data gathering and sharing ability.

“You have a friend, a colleague in the governor’s office,” Abercrombie said. “I have a gut, a visceral understanding of what you face every day.”

The data-gathering plan has been well received by those who will be directly involved in its implementation.

“I think people are excited,” Public Safety Director Jodie Maesaka-Hirata told Civil Beat. “They want to see what information comes out, the kinds of recommendations. They want to know how it will work, what cost-savings will come out, how the community can play a better role in this.”

At its most fundamental level, Justice Reinvestment analyzes crime, arrest, conviction, jail or prison and probation and parole data, literally mapping the data across the state. Based on the data, policy then determines, for example, whether areas need more substance abuse and mental health treatment programs — or unemployment and food stamp benefits.

Maesaka-Hirata said the plan is not just about collecting data.

“It will show what is working, what’s not, what areas are lacking in data, where there are shortfalls in performance indicators and how to pinpoint things and break them down more clearly,” she said. “And then it involves sharing the data across the criminal justice system.”

NIMBY Challenge

The challenge in implementing good practices based on Justice Reinvestment, however, will largely fall to the Legislature.

“This is a very positive step for the Abercrombie administration, but this is just the rolling out effort,” said state Sen. Will Espero, who chairs the Senate committee that deals with public safety. “There is still a lot of public-relations work to be done by the ‘JR’ folks — what I call ‘Justice Reinvestment.'”

Espero, who was at the Ala Moana conference, said, “The question is, what will the recommendations be? Will we have the political will to pass them? Are we willing to spend money on this? Will prosecutors support reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing, or will law enforcement support more community-based programs? It’s easy to get everyone together for lunch, but when it comes down to implementing it, who is going to accept a drug treatment or a halfway house in their neighborhood? NIMBY could be a problem.”

As Civil Beat reported, lawmakers have a penchant for introducing legislation that, if passed, would actually add to the burdens of an already burden justice system.

Kat Brady, coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons, is convinced that Justice Reinvestment works. She points to a recent national study that says for every dollar spent on community programs like drug treatment, $18 is saved on criminal justice system costs.

But Brady offered two cautionary notes. The first is a concern that the justice data will not be widely shared but rather bureaucratized.

“We need a transparent process so we can all track and follow it,” she said.

Brady’s other concern is that the new plan is starting just as Hawaii quietly signed a new three-year contract with the mainland company that currently houses about 1,600 local prisoners in Arizona. While Hawaii has brought back 239 prisoners since December, Brady observes that the renewed contract actually allows for more prison beds than the previous one.

As for NIMBY issues, Brady says that is exactly why there needs to be an effective PR campaign. As she put it, “You need to say to people, do you want a clean and sober house next to you where people are working to change their lives — or an ice house?”

Maesaka-Hirata agrees.

“It’s going to mean going into the neighborhoods and talking with them,” she said. “I have gone to meetings in Pearl City, for example, which is near prisons, and I hear people say they are worried about offenders catching the bus, even though you want to have them have the opportunity to get a job before they exit out (of the system).”

She continued: “But, if you are honest, everyone knows someone — a family member, a friend — that has been involved in the system. Our population is so small that it touches us all. And if you don’t know someone, then you haven’t lived in Hawaii that long.”

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