If all goes as planned, officials from the Hawaii Department of Public Safety predict that 1,000 local prisoners incarcerated in two Arizona prisons could be home by 2015.

About 750 would remain, but Public Safety says the addition of bed space at facilities on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island — beginning as early as 2016 — could house the Hawaii prisoners and relieve overcrowding at other island prisons.

A lot of stars have to align for that to happen, starting with the passage of Justice Reinvestment bills at the Hawaii Legislature — the aim of “JRI” is to reduce the prison population and save money — as well as the approval of $49 million in capital improvement projects to fix up prisons across the state.

There are a lot of hurdles down the road, too, including having a healthy economy that allows for more CIP spending to build new prisons or rehabilitate old ones. Local residents will also have to become comfortable with prisons near their backyards.

But members of Senate Public Safety, Government Operations and Military Affairs expressed cautious optimism that an end may be in sight to a vexing problem — how to return Hawaii offenders to their home.

Banking on Justice Reivestment

The plan to return the prisoners began with Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who said in December 2010 that that was his goal.

It coincides with the Justice Reinvestment study that was conducted last year — a data-driven approach designed to pinpoint what is working (but especially what is not) in Hawaii’s criminal justice system.

Several proposals that came out of JRI are alive in the 2012 session, including a measure requiring the use of validated risk assessments to guide parole decisions and limiting the length of re-incarceration for first-time parole violators.

There will likely be more JRI bills down the road.

Public Safety Director Jodie Maesaka-Hirata told senators Tuesday at the Capitol that if JRI is fully implemented and projections hold, there will be just 750 Hawaii prisoners in Arizona three years from now.

While it costs more money to incarcerate prisoners locally — about $127 a day — the costs to keep them in Arizona went from about $62 per bed in fiscal year 2010 to $76 per bed a year ago, once travel and medical costs were factored in.

But there have been other costs, too, such as the difficulty for families to stay close to their loved ones on the mainland. And there is growing evidence that Hawaii prisoners have had a very difficult time in the Arizona prisons, as spelled out in a lawsuit filed earlier this month over the death of a Hawaii inmate.

Meanwhile, Hawaii’s prison population has grown 18 percent over the past decade to more than 6,000.

NIMBY Concerns

For Hawaii to house more inmates requires additional bed space locally.

The Senate committee heard about plans to replace or expand a facility at Puunene, Maui; to reactivate the Kulani facility on the Big Island; and to expand the Waiawa facility on Oahu.

None are guarantees, and each will require either millions of dollars from the Legislature or some combination of public-private partnerships.

The last time the state looked at the idea of adding new prison space, during the Cayetano years, community concerns shot them down.

Sen. Gil Kahele, who represents the Big Island, advised Public Safety to seek community input before moving too far along with plans to fix up Kulani. Maesaka-Hirata said feelers were already being sent out to do just that.

Sen. Michelle Kidani, meanwhile, whose district includes Waiawa, suggested that Pubic Safety conduct a cost-benefit analysis to make certain the state would actually realize cost savings from the prison plans.

There are other tantalizing ideas to help Hawaii with its prisoner problem.

One is to purchase the Federal Detention Center near the airport, where some 330 Hawaii inmates are already kept. Another is the possibility that the Oahu Correctional Community Center in Kalihi be sold to make way for transit-oriented development and Honolulu’s planned rail system.

Even if all went well, it could take until 2017 and beyond to return all of Hawaii’s prisoners. By then, Neil Abercrombie could presumably be completing his second and final term in office — but with a goal achieved.

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