As vice speaker of the House, John Mizuno had his hands on many bills in this year’s legislative session: more than 170 measures — about 50 of them as chief sponsor.

But, as the session got underway in January, Mizuno fired off a press release to single out House Bill 2001, one of his pet initiatives that called for “25 by 25” — a 25 percent reduction in the state’s prison population by 2025.

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Normally, Mizuno says, he avoids making such marketing moves.

“If you let your colleagues know that it’s one of your pet bills, it may be leveraged against you,” Mizuno said. “It’s like a poker — you want to keep your cards to yourself.”

Still, Mizuno took the risk. As he saw it, HB 2001 was the kind of “cutting-edge, progressive legislation” sorely needed to breathe new life into Hawaii’s effort to overhaul its troubled criminal justice system.

Across the country, dozens of states have taken up similar efforts, reversing what many see as the policy excesses of the 1980s and 1990s — and the mass incarceration that followed.

New York, for instance, managed to reduce its prison population by 26 percent in a 13-year span, from 1999 to 2012.

But not Hawaii — despite past efforts.

Even though the crime rate is at its lowest in decades, the state is still locking up people in record numbers; on any given day, an average of 6,000 people — including about 1,400 Hawaii prisoners in Arizona — are behind bars.

Vice Speaker of the House Representatives John Mizuno at Governor Ige's State of the State ceremonies . 26 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
John Mizuno, vice speaker of the House, introduced bold legislation, dubbed “25 by 25,” to overhaul Hawaii’s troubled criminal justice system. But his bill never made it out of committee. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Mizuno believed that, under HB 2001, things would be different: A combination of sentencing reform and reduction in recidivism could bring a drastic cut in the prison population.

Mizuno’s vision won’t be tested, though, since his bill — along with thousands of other measures — was dead by the time the session wrapped up last week.

But Mizuno got a consolation prize of sorts: State lawmakers adopted a modest resolution — with no money attached — calling for the creation of a new task force to “study effective incarceration policies” in other states.

In many ways, the fate of Mizuno’s bill underscored the Legislature’s approach this year: cautious small steps rather than a bold effort toward criminal justice reform.

Ige’s OCCC Plan Goes Down

To be sure, this year’s legislative session wasn’t lacking in the number of prison-related bills.

The highest-profile one was House Bill 2388, which would have given Gov. David Ige an array of options to finance a replacement facility for the crumbling Oahu Community Correctional Center — including a sale of general obligation bonds in excess of $489 million.

Oahu Community Correctional Center. 18 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
In a major blow to Gov. David Ige, the Legislature rejected House Bill 2388, which would have given his administration the means to pursue replacement of the crumbling Oahu Community Correctional Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

At the beginning of session, the momentum appeared to be building for the bill; almost all stakeholders agreed that OCCC, originally built in 1916, needed to be relocated — possibly adjacent to the Halawa Correctional Facility, as Ige envisioned.

In the end, though, the Legislature rejected the bill, preferring to take a more deliberate approach than spending nearly a half-billion dollars all at once.

The move was a major blow to the governor, who had listed OCCC’s relocation as one of his top legislative priorities.

“One of the harshest realities facing us today is that we need to tear down (OCCC) in Kalihi and build a new facility in Halawa,” Ige said in his State of the State address in January. “The jail is severely overcrowded and in disrepair, and we must take action.”

But Ige’s plan had two fatal flaws.

For one thing, the $489 million price tag for building a new OCCC was based on a years-old estimate. Adjusted for inflation and other considerations, the true figure was actually closer to $650 million.

“We also need to take into account our long-term goal of bringing back our Arizona inmates and, in my preference, putting them at Halawa.” — State Rep. Gregg Takayama

“$650 million is too much. I’m of the opinion that we shouldn’t be spending that much money,” said state Sen. Will Espero, vice chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee.

The other issue involved the location of a new OCCC.

Ige’s interim plan was to build it at Halawa, but state Rep. Gregg Takayama says it’s important to reserve the site for a future expansion of the prison, a move that would make it possible to bring back the 1,400 prisoners from Arizona.

“Even though our first priority is to build a new OCCC, we also need to take into account our long-term goal of bringing back our Arizona inmates and, in my preference, putting them at Halawa,” said Takayama, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee.

At a press conference last week, Ige opted to focus on a brighter side: The new state budget approved by the Legislature provided $37.5 million in capital improvement funds to expand three jails on the neighbor islands. Another $17.5 million was appropriated for planning a replacement facility for the Maui Community Correctional Center.

For OCCC, lawmakers set aside $4 million for maintenance, as well as $5.4 million to conduct a study to find suitable locations. The Hawaii Department of Public Safety also received another $12.5 million in general funds that could be used for the study.

“In a nutshell, what the session does in terms of the budget bill is really advance the planning for OCCC’s replacement,” Takayama said. “It does the reasonable thing, which is to prepare to give the Legislature the facts and figures on which we can make a good decision.”

Judge Steven Alm First Circuit Court Hawaii gestures while speaking to Rui interview. 4 feb 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Circuit Court Judge Steven Alm led the once-a-decade effort to update the Hawaii penal code last year. The work resulted in House Bill 2561, which was adopted by the Legislature last week. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Streamlining The Penal Code

Meanwhile, Ige hasn’t indicated whether he intends to sign House Bill 2561, which was adopted by the Legislature last week to streamline the state’s penal code.

The bill was based on recommendations from the Penal Code Review Committee, a once-a-decade task force made up of a wide range of officials and advocates to examine the state’s criminal statutes.

One of the bill’s provisions would raise the bar on felony theft — from $300 in stolen items or services to $750 before a felony charge could be filed.

Ige vetoed a virtually identical change last year.

It’s unclear whether the change — if approved by Ige — would have any effect on the state’s incarceration rate.

That’s because it was accompanied by a provision that designates those who commit two property crimes — rather than three — as “habitual” offenders and stiffens the penalties against them.

For the most part, the bill’s other changes were focused on making an array of small, arcane fixes to the penal code, such as clarifying the definition of alcohol as applied to drunken-driving cases.

Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, says many of the changes were simply common sense.

“It fixes some things that judges, many of whom are former prosecutors, are actually seeing on the bench and going, ‘Wow, that’s a bad idea,'” Brady said.

So the changes, even taken together, weren’t aimed at reaching an overarching, reform-driven goal, such as reducing the state’s prison population.

Marijuana pipes.
Senate Bill 2179 aimed to decriminalize “prohibited acts related to drug paraphernalia,” but the Legislature quickly rejected the measure. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

By contrast, a number of other bills were squarely aimed at sentencing reform.

Senate Bill 2179, for instance, proposed to decriminalize “prohibited acts related to drug paraphernalia” — the lowest-level felony reserved for those who are arrested on possession charges.

House Bill 2734, meanwhile, pushed to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and set aside appropriate funds for providing alternatives to incarceration.

But neither bill managed to make it out of committee.

Nor did Senate Bill 2198, which would have extended a pilot program to divert nonviolent, low-risk drug offenders to treatment. The Legislature had set up the program two years ago — only to see it languish, thanks to bureaucratic red tape — but fixing the problems didn’t have enough support this year.

There were glimmers of hope for the reform-minded, though.

For one thing, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 2630, which authorized Hawaii Correctional Industries to sell inmate-made products to the general public for the first time.

Espero says the program could be expanded in the future using the proceeds to involve up to 1,000 inmates — a far cry from the current enrollment of about 270.

“This gives inmates a skill, nurturing their creative side — that’s what this does,” Espero said. “In a quiet year, this is a big measure. Because the program can really sustain itself.”

Brady also sees value in the bill as a “great re-entry program.”

“It teaches good work ethic and skills that they can actually transfer to the outside world, so that’s really helpful,” Brady said.

Nolan Espinda, the director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety at the Capitol.
The Legislature gave Nolan Espinda, director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, the power to release some nonviolent offenders who are charged with, or convicted of, a misdemeanor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Legislature also adopted House Bill 2391, giving the director of public safety the power to release those who are charged with, or convicted of, a misdemeanor after July 1 — so long as they’re not involved in a “serious crime” or have bail set at more than $5,000.

Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, says as many as 452 inmates could have qualified, if the program were applied last month.

But Schwartz noted that, once implemented, the policy would include other criteria not in the bill. For example, she said, the department won’t release people who have critical medical or mental health needs or who are homeless.

Brady says the bill got too “watered down” before it was adopted.

“Hardly anybody is going to get out under the amended language. I really don’t know what that’s going to do,” Brady said. “I guess it’s something that we can build on.”

A New Vision For Criminal Justice

Mizuno says what Hawaii really needs is a bigger vision — a plan that sets an ambitious goal for the future.

“You need to have some benchmark to follow,” Mizuno said, “something that’s to the point where people will ask, ‘Are we being realistic? Are we just going for a pie in the sky?'”

To that end, Mizuno plans to reintroduce his “25 by 25” proposal next year; he says the idea has parallels to Hawaii’s renewable energy goal.

“You need to have some benchmark to follow — something that’s to the point where people will ask, ‘Are we being realistic?’” — State Rep. John Mizuno

“To ask that we reduce the prison population by 25 percent by 2025 is extremely ambitious, and for some people it’s not realistic,” Mizuno said. “But we passed a bill to make Hawaii completely reliable on renewable energy by 2045. To me, that seems almost unrealistic and hard to attain. Nevertheless, I like the fact that we passed the bill.”

Espero agreed that a bold plan is lacking. “The key people in the state — not enough of us have been very reform-minded,” he said. “So a large-scale, master-plan, strategic effort is not there.”

But Espero says the state isn’t without any plans, pointing to a re-entry commission he helped put in place in 2009.

“It’s finally starting to function in the way I envisioned it,” Espero said. “So, if you can connect the dots that we’ve put in place, you’ll see that we’re moving forward. We’re making progress.”

For her part, Brady says there are positives to take away from this year’s legislative session.

“It’s always like this: five steps forward, four steps back. It takes tenacity,” Brady said. “But we did fairly well in terms of raising the issues about any new facility and educating people on who actually are in prisons.”

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