Nearly six years after it was established by the Legislature, the state’s Re-entry Commission is failing to fulfill its job of overseeing programs to help Hawaii’s inmates stay out of prison after they’re released.
The commission has only met once since 2013; that’s because eight seats on the 10-member commission have been empty for more than three years.
Under Act 76, the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker were tasked to select a slate of new members in 2012, but they have mostly neglected that mandate — although then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie made two of the three appointments he was responsible for.
As a result, the commission has been unable to hold quarterly meetings, as specified by the statute, let alone work with the Hawaii Department of Public Safety to develop effective re-entry policies.
State Sen. Will Espero, who wrote Act 24 — which established the commission on Jan. 1, 2010 — holds the Department of Public Safety accountable for the neglect.
“In terms of recidivism, we need to do a better job of helping our inmates, most of whom will one day be released.” — State Sen. Will Espero
“The Re-entry Commission is administratively attached to the department, and they know and understand the intent of the commission. They need to show the initiative and make sure that the mandate of the statute is being met. That’s their job,” Espero said.
“They’re not expected to run the meetings, but they can certainly say to the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker, ‘You need to make appointments, so we can get this commission operating and meet the requirement of the state law.’ I feel sometimes the department is either dragging its feet or taking a ho-hum attitude about it.”
Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, a nonprofit pushing for criminal justice reform in Hawaii, agrees with Espero that the commission’s disarray reflects the Department of Public Safety’s lack of interest in the re-entry programs.
“The department’s responsibility is to make sure people are ready to re-enter the society. So the commission should be their thing,” Brady said. “There’s a lot of things that it can do, but it seems clear to me that re-entry isn’t high on their radar.”
But Espero and Brady apparently hadn’t been monitoring the Re-entry Commission, either, because neither was aware until recently that its structure had been changed by the Legislature in 2012.
Nolan Espinda, the director of public safety, says the department is sorting things out to meet a number of mandates called for by Act 76.
“We are in the process of establishing a re-entry office to oversee the administration of the initiatives in Act 76,” Espinda, who assumed his position in January, said in a statement. “We hope to have the office implemented by the end of the year.”
Espinda didn’t elaborate further.
An earlier manifestation of the Re-entry Commission was the result of Espero’s Senate Bill 539, which led to Act 24 in 2009.
The bill’s goal was to reduce the state’s recidivism rate, which was then — and still is — hovering around 50 percent among its probationers and parolees.
“In terms of recidivism, we need to do a better job of helping our inmates, most of whom will one day be released,” Espero said last week. “While they are still in our custody, I believe we should do all we can to give them the skills, give them the education and give them treatments that are necessary to become productive members of our society and hopefully not go back to the life of crime.”
Under Act 24, the commission was tasked to work with the Department of Public Safety on re-entry initiatives, including “education and treatment programs, rehabilitative services, work furloughs and the Hawaii Paroling Authority’s oversight of parolees,” among others.
The statute called for 11 people — none of them government employees — to be appointed to the commission. The governor was to appoint four members, while the Senate president and the House speaker were to select two members each.
The three remaining seats were to be filled by a “reintegrated inmate” and one representative each from the Community Alliance on Prisons and the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.
The thinking was that having community input was vital in making re-entry programs work.
“If the community is not welcoming, not understanding who’s coming out (of prison), it’s very difficult for people who are coming out,” Brady said. “So the Legislature in its wisdom decided that it’s really important that we have a Re-entry Commission that’s with the community to work with the department.”
Even though the statute says the commission “shall meet at least quarterly,” Brady says it has managed to meet only three or four times since its inception — and it’s never had a quorum.
The most recent meeting, and the first since 2013, was held in August. Espero and Brady were there, but no actual commission members turned up. The two Abercrombie appointees, Blayne Hanagami and Carol Ignacio, were no-shows, and Brady’s presence didn’t count.
The two bills, introduced respectively through the offices of the Senate president and the House speaker, were intended to completely reconstitute the commission.
The bills reduced the commission to 10 members, with the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker to pick three members each. The remaining position, dubbed “the re-entry coordinator,” was to serve as a “nonvoting member.”
“Hawaii wasn’t really eligible to apply for these grants because we didn’t really have the commission to coordinate with.” — Chas Williams, executive director of WorkNet Inc.
Espero and Brady weren’t even aware of the change when they showed up for the August meeting.
“It was a total surprise,” Brady said. “(Espero) asked me, ‘How did we miss this, Kat?’ I have no idea, but I follow like 100 bills.”
Cindy McMillan, spokeswoman for Gov. David Ige, says the governor is still making his selections.
“We know that there’s a number of positions that need to be filled, not just on this commission but on a number of boards and commissions, and we’re actively seeking people to fill them,” McMillan said.
Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Joe Souki didn’t respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment.
Espero says he’ll talk with Kouchi and recommend that he appoint Brady and two former inmates to the commission.
“Because it was my legislation that created the commission, I will make sure this week that everybody knows that we need appointments,” Espero said.
But Espero added that he still wants the Department of Public Safety to do the follow-up.
“It could be that they are overwhelmed with other issues and concerns, but that’s not an excuse. The job is clear, and the task is not difficult at all,” Espero said. “I could administer this from my office, but it’s not my job. But, if the department can’t, they need to tell us, and we’ll try to make other arrangements.”
Meanwhile, Chas Williams, executive director of WorkNet Inc., a Honolulu-based nonprofit that provides job training to ex-offenders, says Hawaii is missing out on some federal funds, including various grants available through the Second Chance Act that support local re-entry initiatives.
To get these grants, Williams says, the Department of Public Safety would have to show that it has a system in place to coordinate its various re-entry programs with outside service providers — a role that a functioning commission could have been playing.
“These grants have been a major vehicle that the federal government has been using to promote the local efforts on prison re-entry,” Williams said. “But Hawaii wasn’t really eligible to apply for these grants because we didn’t really have the commission to coordinate with.”