To help relieve overcrowding in jails, Hawaii lawmakers advanced a bill that would release some misdemeanants from custody.

Under House Bill 2391, introduced as part of Gov. David Ige’s legislative package, the director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety would have discretion to order the release of those charged with, or convicted on, a misdemeanor.

But any inmate who have been involved in a “serious crime,” or who have had bail denied or set at more than $5,000, would not be eligible for the release.

Oahu Community Correctional Center. 18 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Oahu Community Correctional Center is so crowded that three inmates share some cells. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On Thursday, Nolan Espinda, the director of public safety, said the bill could provide “a rational and reasonable alternative to incarceration.”

Espinda told members of the House Public Safety Committee that, if applied today, the bill could be applied to more than 200 inmates.

But the bill faced opposition from prosecutors and law enforcement officials.

Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro argued that the release of misdemeanants isn’t appropriate if the goal is “simply to meet arbitrary headcount goals.”

“This bill attempts to take a complicated issue of overcrowding within our correctional facilities and take the most simplistic approach by releasing defendants at the discretion of the director of public safety,” Kaneshiro wrote in his testimony.

“Our overall strategy is to manage (overcrowding) as if we’re in crisis, because we’re in crisis.” — Nolan Espinda, the director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety

Dagan Tsuchida from the Honolulu Police Department also opposed the bill, saying it could “present a potential risk to public safety and property and would tax police resources and staffing to address these crimes.”

But Espinda noted that the director of public safety had broader discretion to release inmates from 1985 to 2000, when the state was under a federal consent decree to relieve overcrowding.

The Legislature had granted the release of “qualified pretrial inmates” to make sure that the populations at the Oahu Community Correctional Center and the Women’s Community Correctional Center would not exceed the capacity.

At the state’s four jails, overcrowding remains endemic: At the end of December, for instance, 1,155 inmates were crammed into space designed to house 628.

“Our overall strategy is to manage (overcrowding) as if we’re in crisis, because we’re in crisis,” Espinda said. “My attempt here is for us to have a rational discussion … (so that), when we get to the point where we’re so overcrowded that we face actual litigation or in our plain eyesight can see inhumane conditions occurring our institutions, we agree as a community that this is the group of people we would think should be released to relieve that situation.”

Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, urged the lawmakers to support the bill.

“Avoiding problems or kicking the can down the road is not policymaking,” Brady said. “Policymaking is taking on the hard issues and speaking the truth about them.”

The Public Safety Committee passed the bill after making an amendment to clarify that those “convicted or accused of domestic violence violations or crimes” wouldn’t be eligible for release.

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