UPDATED 9/29/11 8:45 a.m.

Crimes, arrests and felony dispositions are on the decline in Hawaii, yet the number of people incarcerated has remained stable.


Three reasons: The pre-trial population has more than doubled, a bottlenecked system is increasing parole denials and parole violators are being held longer and without supervision.

Those are the main — and surprising — findings of a preliminary analysis from the Justice Reinvestment project in Hawaii.

On Wednesday, some two dozen people involved in the state’s criminal justice system got an update at the state Capitol on the project, a data-driven approach to reduce spending on corrections and redirect the money into cutting crime and improving public safety.

Data Mining

Justice Reinvestment is credited with helping get those results in more than a dozen mainland states. There’s an added benefit of being of little cost to states because the project is paid for by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Pew Center on the States.

In June, Gov. Neil Abercrombie announced Hawaii would initiate Justice Reinvestment, with the goal of presenting policy and budget recommendations to the administration in time for the 2011 Hawaii Legislature.

Since then, project staff have been gathering and combing over data provided them by Hawaii stakeholders — a working group that includes cops, prosecutors, public defenders, corrections and county officials, behavioral health and treatment providers and victim and survivor advocates.

On Wednesday, they learned some of what all that data is telling them:

• Property and violent crime both declined by half from 1997 to 2010.

• Approximately 935 felons were sentenced to prison in 2007 compared with 624 in 2011.

• The length of probation stays for felons has increased 15 percent over the past five years.


• Hawaii’s jail population has increased 48 percent since 2006. (The figure includes the pre-trial population.)

• The parole rate dropped from 40 percent to 34 percent from 2006 to 2010.

Flow of Feedback

The reaction from people at the meeting was one of surprise.

For example, told by project director Marshall Clement that Hawaii terms of probation are much longer than mainland averages — they range from five to 15 years versus two to three — First Circuit Judge Steve Alm responded that Hawaii’s longer parole terms had “always been the culture and norm.”

The feedback from Alm, who originated the state’s HOPE program (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement), is exactly what Clement and his staff want to hear. They want to understand why Hawaii’s criminal justice system works — or does not work — the way that it does.

More feedback soon flowed.

Officials pointed to budget cuts, for example, that had reduced staffing. That probably contributed to the increase in pre-trial numbers, they speculated.

Some defended their policies, while others suggested a bad economy had contributed to criminal justice challenges. There was disagreement over some of the analysis, too, and concerns about releasing people back into the community who might still be a danger.

Hawaii also lacks residential treatment centers, though the centers have proved instrumental in helping mainland locales.

Clement brought the presentation back to its main point, saying that if today’s pre-trial numbers, parole requests and shorter parole periods where at the levels they were just five years ago, “You would not need the extra beds” — meaning prison beds.

“The prison population would be considerably lower and would reflect the lower crime rate and lower arrest rate and lower number of felony disposition,” he said.

Deadlines Approaching

The Justice Reinvestment project still has a lot of data collection and crunching to do, and many more meetings with stakeholders, which involves travel to the neighbor islands.

The next update comes Nov. 29 when the working group convenes again. Another meeting — to discuss policy options — is set for Jan. 25.

But lawmakers in the working group warned that that would be too late for the 2011 Legislature, which is already working on bills for the session that begins Jan. 19.

“Feel free to bring up your ideas now, because we need to start working on language and see what might work,” said state Sen. Will Espero, who chairs a key committee that will consider those ideas. “We can’t wait until Jan. 25.”

The challenges ahead may be formidable.

For example, they will almost certainly include deliberating controversial ideas like shortening parole and probation terms, considering unsupervised releases and placing treatment centers in residential neighborhoods.

There will also likely be budget recommendations — a touchy subject among government agencies and lawmakers over the past several years.

It Came From the Mainland

Finally, one wonders if that familiar only-in-Hawaii scenario — in which local folks reject the recommendations of outsiders — might come into play.

Justice Reinvestment’s Marshall Clement and Andy Barbee, senior research associate, are young and sandy-haired. Both wore light blue button-down shirts with ties on Wednesday. A third staffer, senior policy analyst Robert Coombs, would not be out of place at a Seattle coffee house.

The stakeholders, by contrast, were older, browner and — with the exception of Judge Alm (himself sandy-haired) and City Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, who wore suits — and dressed in aloha business wear.

The Justice Center staff interacted smoothly with the group, often anticipating their concerns. And, most of those at the meeting appeared to welcome the sober analyses.

“I have to remind myself this is a ‘justice reinvestment’ project, not justice reinvention,” Alm said at the beginning of Wednesday’s presentation. “It is not studying and changing the system from A to Z but make a packet of suggestions and recommendation of concrete things to do.”

Alm, who co-chairs the project’s working group, said there are limits to what can be done. But he welcomed having outsiders with “fresh eyes look at our data and see what drives our criminal justice system.”

About the Author