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The PowerPoint presentation was at about the halfway mark when Honolulu City Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro decided he couldn’t sit quietly anymore.
Responding to a slide that suggested some sentenced felons could be released under supervision before the end of their prison term, Kaneshiro said, “These guys don’t want supervision. They are dangerous. You’ve got to keep them incarcerated.”
Perceived threats to public safety, it seems, is one of the hurdles of implementing the recommendations of the “Justice Reinvestment in Hawaii” analysis.
The recommendations were announced this morning at the Capitol and celebrated at a midday press conference in the governor’s office.
By increasing efficiencies in Hawaii’s criminal justice system, reducing recidivism and ensuring accountability in helping former prisoners reenter society, Hawaii could empty prison beds and redirect state funds into other parts of the system that need support.
The analysis, conducted by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, in partnership with the Pew Center on the States, projects that Hawaii could save $108 million by 2018 and cut the number of Hawaii prisoners housed in Arizona prisons by two-thirds.
Kaneshiro, a member of the Justice Reinvestment — or JRI — working group, is not opposed to everything in the report, which can be viewed here. But he made it clear that he will oppose legislation he thinks would harm public safety.
Kaneshiro’s concerns are shared by others in the working group, including county prosecutors, parole officials and at least one state senator, Republican Sam Slom.
“Sometimes we get caught up in statistics and saying that only a few individuals are likely to reoffend,” said Slom. “From the public’s position, they will reoffend. That’s why the public gets so frustrated when someone with 75 priors is still doing the same thing.”
Justice Reinvestment is a data-driven approach to reform a state’s criminal justice system.
By crunching the numbers on things like incarceration rates, crime statistics, pretrial detentions, parole violations and sentencing, the Council of State Governments Justice Center can point to what is working — and what is not — in a state’s system.
What’s not working in Hawaii is that, while crime and victimization rates are down, as are the number of felony convictions, the state’s prison and jail population increased 18 percent over the last decade. Hawaii currently has more than 6,000 people in state prisons.
Four main reasons: delays in the pre-trial process, a bottlenecked parole system, prisoners being held longer and finishing sentences without supervision, and lack of discretion in sentencing “low severity” drug offenders.
Justice Reinvestment details a number of ways to reverse those trends, including reducing delays in the pre-trial process, strengthen probation supervision, moving prisoners with a low-risk for recidivism to parole and cutting the last 10 months off sentences for Class A felons.
Some of those ideas, however, did not go over well with Kaneshiro and company.
“Some parolees have nowhere to go — they are refusing to cooperate,” said Bert Matsuoka, chair of the Hawaii Paroling Authority. “They have a real attitude problem.”
“I don’t see why we should extend supervision,” said Maui County Prosecutor John Kim. “They are just going to run away — that’s been our experience.”
But JRI also has officials in the legal community who are warming to its approach.
“There is no question we have to be tough on crime, but at same time there is no reason we can’t be smart on crime,” said First Circuit Judge Steve Alm, chair of the working group. “And this process is helping us do just that.”
Alm continued: “There are many things we can do at all stages of the system while protecting public safety at the same time. If we can do that and achieve savings, we can reinvest back into the system.”
For his part, Kaneshiro interpreted Hawaii’s growing prison rates and falling crime as an indicator that the state is already headed in the right direction. He suggested that an outside group like the Council of State Governments Justice Center may not understand local characteristics.
After the briefing, reporters swarmed around Kaneshiro, a strong law-and-order prosecutor who is running for re-election. He later conferred with state Sen. Clayton Hee, chair of Senate Judiciary and Labor, a committee through which proposed Justice Reinvestment legislation may have to pass.
Meanwhile, Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney Charlene Iboshi offered another perspective that seemed to get at the heart of some concerns.
“We are afraid of changing because good things are working,” she said. “We need a balance. For those of us in this long-term, we are just cautious. That is why there is such resistance to a lot of change in a short time. Let us digest it a little.”
Ultimately, state Sen. Will Espero, chair of Public Safety, made it clear that it is Hawaii’s decision what to do with the JRI recommendations.
“This is not a mandate — this is just data and nothing more,” he said. “We will decide, and this is a discussion that will go on for at least the next year. We accept that there are some controversial issues.”
In spite of the reaction of folks like Kaneshiro, JRI appears to have more support than opposition, starting at the top.
At the press conference that followed the presentation, Gov. Neil Abercrombie said he was “very impressed” with the work. He also sought to allay fears that Hawaii would be pressured by mainland forces.
“They have had all the usual challenges of people who come in and try tell us what to do,” he said. “And very quickly that was subsumed and overcome.”
Abercrombie was joined at the Capitol’s ceremony room by many of the same officials who were at the presentation, including Kaneshiro. Others included Attorney General David Louie, Senate President Shan Tsutsui and Hawaii Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald.
“This is an important day for the criminal justice system in Hawaii,” said Recktenwald. “This a new way of looking at some very long-standing challenges — a fresh look at our results over the years.”
Even Slom, who admitted he initially looked at JRI with “a jaundiced eye,” described the process as “productive. We cannot forget public safety — it still comes down to that — but we will give due deliberation to this. It is not a partisan issue.”
That deliberation starts tomorrow, when House and Senate Public Safety committees hold an informational briefing on the JRI analysis. What follows are a number of bills submitted by the administration for the Legislature’s consideration.
The Legislature could be asked to spend $7 million a year to implement the plan. But the governor did not think the appropriation was a problem.
“We are not just getting a study that is going on the shelf,” he said. “It is dynamic work that has immediate application.”
Abercrombie also said he would settle for the return of most of Hawaii’s prisoners in Arizona, though he had called for the return of all of them. The number of Hawaii prisoners incarcerated in Arizona could drop from 1,750 today to fewer than 600 by the year 2018, the working group suggested.
“I try never to let the ideal become the enemy of the good,” he said. “Of course, I want to work as fast as we can. For example, I believe we have all women prisoners back now. So, whatever it takes down the road toward accomplishing that. If we can’t get everybody, then we can’t get everybody. But it won’t be for lack of effort.”