- Special Projects
As this year’s legislative session got underway, Bob Merce had a mission: Stop state lawmakers from signing off on any plan to replace the crumbling Oahu Community Correctional Center — a massive project that could cost nearly $700 million.
Merce, a member of the Correctional Justice Task Force, says fast-tracking OCCC’s replacement would have been a wrong move — akin to putting the proverbial cart before the horse.
“To me, it’s the most obvious and simple proposition imaginable, and I’ve been telling everybody who would listen: Forget about planning for a new jail until you know what you need to build,” Merce said.
In the end, Merce got his wish: Having failed to come to a consensus, the lawmakers put off deciding the fate of OCCC’s replacement until next year.
Back in January, however, it looked as though the momentum was building for the project.
For one thing, the lawmakers were under pressure to take action: A week before the session began, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii called for a federal probe, alleging that the conditions at seven prisons and jails — including OCCC — were “unsafe, overcrowded and unconstitutional.”
Three weeks later, a team of consultants hired by the Hawaii Department of Public Safety came out with a 532-page report, identifying four potential sites for OCCC’s replacement at a price tag ranging from $433 million to $673 million.
In theory, the lawmakers could have mobilized quickly in response — making a choice on the site and allocating necessary funds to move the project along.
But the lawmakers ended up doing the opposite: Instead of settling on the vision for a new OCCC, they introduced a collection of disparate bills and resolutions that, taken together, effectively worked against making any progress.
The outcome was fortuitous for Merce and fellow task force members, who are on track to present the Legislature with a set of recommendations in December to overhaul the criminal justice system — a work that could dramatically reduce the state’s inmate population.
“From my perspective, it turned out to be a good session because we basically bought ourselves another year,” said Merce, who heads the task force’s design committee. “This gives us more time to build support for our work among different stakeholders.”
This year, there was no shortage of bills and resolutions that could have shaped the fate of OCCC’s replacement.
What was missing, though, was marquee legislation in the mold of House Bill 2388, a 2016 measure introduced by Gov. David Ige to use as much as $489 million in general obligation bonds to finance OCCC’s replacement.
Instead, the lawmakers introduced a number of modest measures that would have had an effect of slowing down or suspending the work of the consultants for the Department of Public Safety.
With House Concurrent Resolution 156 and House Resolution 102, for instance, state Rep. Gregg Takayama sought to expand the scope of the search for potential sites, urging the consultants to consider smaller locations that are as little as 4.5 acres, instead of setting the search criteria to locations with at least 20 acres.
The measures ultimately failed, but the consultants promised Takayama, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee, that they’d look into smaller locations — effectively agreeing to take on more workload.
Takayama also introduced House Bill 462, a measure that sought to suspend the consultants’ work while the state solicits bids for building a 3,000-bed prison in Waiawa.
As Takayama saw it, HB 462 would have allowed the state to free up the Halawa Correctional Facility for OCCC inmates while bringing back 1,600 Hawaii prisoners who are now housed at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona.
But the measure was met with fierce opposition from prison reform advocates, and the Senate ultimately rejected it.
State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, meanwhile, managed to muster enough support for Senate Resolution 83, a measure similar to Takayama’s that called for the consultants to consider locations less than 10 acres in size.
But, unlike concurrent resolutions that get adopted by both chambers of the Legislature, SR 83 is a symbolic, Senate-only measure that doesn’t carry much weight.
And Senate Concurrent Resolution 169 — Dela Cruz’s bid to suspend the consultants’ work until Merce’s task force can come out with its recommendations — ultimately died when the House tried to gut-and-replace the measure with a call for upgrading the state’s disaster preparedness plans.
With no breakthrough on OCCC’s replacement, the 2018 legislative session appears to be shaping up to be a busy one.
The lawmakers will likely have to wrestle with two diverging visions: one offered by the consultants, who have been operating on the assumption that the state will have to build a wholesale replacement with at least 1,200 beds, and the other offered by Merce’s task force, which will recommend adopting “best practices” to dramatically reduce the state’s inmate population.
In its interim report released in February, the task force called for nothing short of a philosophical “paradigm shift” — transforming the criminal justice system from a punitive to a rehabilitative one by diverting low-level and mentally ill offenders away from jails and expanding treatment for those suffering from alcohol and substance abuse.
“The question should not be how large a new jail needs to be, but how small the jail can be with successful diversion programs? Overbuilding would be one of the worst mistakes the state could make,” the report says.
“Why do we keep doing the same thing, instead of being more outcome-minded and design our system around it?” — Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons
Kat Brady, who has been following the task force’s work closely, says adopting a rehabilitative model is a no-brainer for Hawaii.
“We send people behind bars who are broken and then we break them some more and then we send them back to the community and then blame them when things go wrong again. This is a cycle we will never get out of,” Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, said. “So why do we keep doing the same thing, instead of being more outcome-minded and design our system around it?”
But Takayama, a member of the task force, is skeptical that even if all recommendations get adopted, the state can release enough inmates to forgo building OCCC’s replacement.
“Our current facilities in Hawaii have the capacity to hold about half of the 6,000 inmates we now have. So, if we’re going to reform to the extent that we don’t need any new facility, we would have to release half the inmates,” Takayama said. “We cannot do that. It’s not reasonable. And I think it’s unrealistic for the advocates of that idea to advance that notion.”
Dela Cruz says the Ige administration will have to take the lead in helping strike a balance between the two visions.
“We have to decide if we’re going to pursue prison reforms, or do we want to just build what are we going to build?” Dela Cruz said. “Ultimately, these things are in the hands of the Ige administration. They need to figure it out before the next session and present a plan.
“That way, we can avoid what you saw this session — different legislators introducing different things without real direction from the administration to build the consensus,” Dela Cruz said.