- Special Projects
Behind his desk, Keith Kaneshiro keeps a binder full of faded newspaper clippings — a compendium of Honolulu’s true crime stories going back for decades.
As he thumbs through the binder, the city’s top prosecutor says it presents one meta-narrative: that the precipitous drop in Honolulu’s crime rate during the late 1990s and early 2000s was a result of mass incarceration, made possible by his successful lobbying effort to secure more out-of-state prison beds.
“Because so many guys are in prison, the crime rate has gone down,” Kaneshiro said. “Prison works. Incarceration works.”
That’s why Kaneshiro finds it baffling that, in recent years, the notion of criminal justice reform has become the cause du jour — both in Hawaii and across the country — and worries that programs like work furlough, the state’s flagship re-entry initiative, are putting the public at risk.
Kaneshiro points to his binder, which contains a number of articles about furlough “walkaways” who go on to commit a new crime.
According to the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, 20 furlough participants on Oahu have failed to return to custody so far this year, though only three are accused of committing new crimes.
“We all think that everybody coming out of prison has to be 100 percent never going back. You know, that is not going to happen.” — Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons
As it happens, furlough proponents cite the same statistics as evidence that it’s one of the state’s most successful re-entry programs; after all, the 20 walkaways represent 5 percent of all furlough participants on Oahu — a far cry from the overall parolee recidivism rate of 45.5 percent.
In many ways, the disconnect illustrates how difficult it can be — even in the bluest of blue states like Hawaii — to generate the support for the kind of progressive prison-reform initiatives called for by the struggling Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
State Sen. Will Espero, vice chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, says this is because people’s default position on crime tends to be conservative.
“When it comes to crime, everyone wants to make certain that their neighborhoods, their community, their streets, their household are safe — that’s No. 1: my family,” Espero said. “There’s also still the mentality, ‘Do the crime, do the time.’ And it doesn’t help when you have inmates walking away, and it makes the news.”
Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, says the public often has unrealistic expectations for prison programs.
“We all think that everybody coming out of prison has to be 100 percent never going back. You know, that is not going to happen,” Brady said. “So we should be standing up and saying, ‘Wait a minute. There’s more to the picture than these people who walk away.'”
Lorenn Walker, executive director of Hawaii Friends of Restorative Justice, concurs.
“I just say two little clichés: ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.’ And ‘you don’t have to let one bad apple spoil the whole basket of apples,'” Walker said. “Sometimes, people make mistakes, but we can’t stop the whole system because of that. We can’t let the rest of the people suffer for one small bad mistake.”
The furlough program, which is run out of the state’s four jails and the women’s prison in Kailua, was launched in 1981 with a simple premise: Given that all but a handful of prisoners are going to be released eventually, it’s sensible to give them an opportunity to prepare for their return to the community.
“A majority of our inmates are in prison for six years or less, and up to 98 percent of them will be released sooner or later. Our goal should then be about keeping them from going back,” Espero said.
On Oahu, the program initially admitted 96 inmates and allowed them to leave for an approved job — or to look for one — so long as they return to the Laumaka Work Furlough Center by an assigned time. It was expanded in January 2013 under the JRI and now uses the Oahu Community Correctional Center’s Module 20 for an additional 118 slots — with a total of about 400 inmates participating annually.
“Because so many guys are in prison, the crime rate has gone down. Prison works. Incarceration works.” — Keith Kaneshiro, Honolulu prosecuting attorney
To get into the program, inmates must be in the minimum- or community-custody classifications — the lowest two of the five security levels — and have sustained good behavior behind bars. They also must complete programs such as drug treatment and be within a year of being eligible for parole.
Despite such standards, the program has long been plagued by well-publicized walkaways. So far this year, there have been 30 of them across the state — nearly one per week.
Late last year, the Department of Public Safety began notifying the public about every walkaway — a departure from the previous practice of publicizing only when furlough participants committed a new crime.
This has had an unintended consequence of regularly highlighting the program’s shortcomings — and reinforcing the sense of “hysteria” surrounding the program, Brady says.
“The press is really good at saying, ‘Oh, look at these people who are walking away,’ and ignoring all the people who have done well,” Brady said. “They just make it sound like everybody should be locked up forever.”
A walkaway faces new sanctions, including a second-degree escape charge that can add another five years to his or her sentence.
Kaneshiro says he’s not categorically opposed to the concept of work furlough.
“If people are trying their best to turn their lives around, I don’t believe that you should just keep them and let them sit for the full 10 years or whatever,” Kaneshiro said. “If there’s a way you can rehabilitate them, rehabilitate them.”
But Kaneshiro is troubled that the program is admitting inmates who don’t have a job lined up.
“You cannot set all these guys out on the street looking for jobs. They’ll just roam all around the neighborhood and end up committing crimes,” Kaneshiro said.
The scenario played out in April, when two furlough participants, Kalai Tavares and Robert Gibson, allegedly entered a Makiki property, tied up four people, and attempted to rob them of drugs and weapons — all while they were supposed to be looking for a job.
“If the (department) limited the program to only those who have a job, then we’d likely be condemning Hawaii to a flood of inmates released on society with no viable means of financial support, no job skills, no work ethic and no realistic chance of long-term success on parole.” — Nolan Espinda, the director of public safety
Tavares, 34, was later charged with four counts of kidnapping, second-degree robbery and third-degree promotion of a dangerous drug. Gibson, 31, was charged with four counts of kidnapping and second-degree robbery.
Nolan Espinda, the director of public safety, points out that Tavares and Gibson represent a statistical anomaly: Less than 1 percent of furlough participants have been arrested for committing a new crime.
And changing the program’s eligibility would undercut its effectiveness, Espinda says. “If the (department) limited the program to only those who have a job, then we’d likely be condemning Hawaii to a flood of inmates released on society with no viable means of financial support, no job skills, no work ethic and no realistic chance of long-term success on parole,” he said.
Still, Espinda said he takes all “deviations” seriously, and the department is exploring ways — including the use of electronic monitoring — to strengthen the program’s oversight.
In January, Espero introduced Senate Bill 1020, a measure that would have set aside $300,000 a year for electronic monitoring to better keep track of probationers and parolees, as well as furlough participants.
The bill ultimately died in a committee, but Espinda says the department will be starting a pilot program at OCCC in September to test the idea.
“Hopefully, a working model is then established as the basis for a 2016 legislative budget request,” Espinda said.
Espero, meanwhile, says he’ll likely bring back his bill at the next legislative session — and even seek further expansion of the furlough program. He believes that re-entry programs, if done right, can win public support.
“I’ve polled on this multiple times — informal polls, but still polls or surveys. And, every single time, 60 percent to 70 percent of the people would agree that inmates need to be rehabilitated, and that we need to invest in rehabilitation and re-entry,” Espero said.