Gov. David Ige’s recent announcement of a plan to build a bigger Oahu jail with 1,333 beds came at a time when most states are working to reduce their jail populations.

It also came just months before two state task forces are expected to submit final reports on ways to do just that in Hawaii.

The governor estimated it will cost $525 million to replace the outdated and overcrowded Oahu Community Correctional Center. That has raised eyebrows among some members of the task forces on criminal justice reform.

“I think the major concern has been the size of the facility,” said state Sen. Clarence Nishihara, a member of the HCR 85 Task Force, charged with looking at ways to design correctional facilities in Hawaii. “Because we don’t want to spend $600 million-plus to lock up people if we don’t have to.”

Oahu Community Corrections Center OCCC.
The Oahu Community Correctional Center currently holds about 1,200 inmates, about 250 more than the facility’s maximum capacity. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Lawyer Bob Merce, another task force member, agreed.

You don’t think about building first,” Merce said. “You don’t think about a site first. You think about what is the population in this facility.”

For the past year, the task force has been studying alternatives to jailing more people and ways to reduce the need for a larger facility.

The group’s interim report issued a year ago said its most important recommendation was for Hawaii to “transition from a punitive to a rehabilitative, restorative and therapeutic correctional model.”

Members have discussed ideas like replacing cells with onsite drug treatment programs and counselors, better vocational programs, direct mental health treatment — anything to keep the cost of criminal justice lower while keeping the public safe.

“It would be such a shame if we blow it,” Merce said.

“Bail reform would significantly reduce the pre-trial population at OCCC and all community correctional centers in Hawaii.” — Carrie Ann Shirota, Hawaii Justice Coalition.

Hawaii is one of a handful of states that has one agency overseeing both jails and prisons, making it tough to compare to other states. The four jails on Oahu, Maui, the Big Island and Kauai hold both pre-trial inmates and convicted felons who have less than a year remaining on their sentence.

That mix makes it more challenging to design a facility. Pretrial defendants make up more than half of OCCC’s current population.

Hawaii has also struggled for years with overcrowded jail and prison facilities. A master-planned effort to build prisons here in the 1970s was out of date by the next decade.

“When construction of the master plan facilities commenced in 1977, Hawaii was caught off guard by a burgeoning inmate population which its existing and planned facilities were not equipped to handle,” a 1982 review of the correctional master plan said. “The emphasis in corrections shifted from a planned program approach to an unplanned, disjunctive approach of putting out fires.”

Today, there are about 1,200 inmates at OCCC, about 250 more than the facility’s maximum capacity. It costs Hawaii taxpayers about $150 per day for each inmate.

Jail overcrowding in many states has been traced to the affordability of bail.

If defendants cannot afford the bail amounts set for them, they remain locked up until trial, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars. Also, pre-trial inmates who cannot afford bail can end up losing their jobs or housing.

Earlier this year,  a study by the ACLU of Hawaii found that fewer than half of defendants who had bail set by a judge could pay it. The study also revealed that 69 percent of the arrestees who changed their pleas from innocent to guilty or no contest did so primarily because they could not afford bail.

In some states, judges are now determining first if a suspect can afford bail and if not, offering other methods to get them to come to court based on the severity of their crime. Electronic ankle bracelets or a system of phone or online check-ins by suspects have been suggested for those charged with lesser crimes as a more cost-effective method to bail. The District of Columbia, for example, has been using a no-bail system for decades.

But Ige’s announcement of a plan for a larger jail, just days after California announced it was going to be the first in the nation to abolish the bail system, did not give advocates much hope about reform of the bail bond system here.

Governor David Ige speaks to media about the moving of OCCC to Halawa.
Gov. David Ige discusses the planned new location for OCCC at Halawa where the state’s animal quarantine facility is now. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Bail reform would significantly reduce the pretrial population at OCCC and all community correctional centers in Hawaii,” said Carrie Ann Shirota, who leads the Hawaii Justice Coalition. 

Ige’s announcement last week was focused on the new OCCC location. But he did say there are many decisions still to be made about how the new facility will operate.

Certainly I do believe that the design will be taking into consideration best practices on how we should manage those who create crimes against the community,” Ige said. “Our responsibility in the executive is to have a humane place where they receive services during the incarceration.” 

A state Department of Public Safety spokesperson said the Legislature’s desire to find a new jail location pre-dated the creation of the reform task forces.

Still, Ige’s support for a larger facility disappointed criminal justice advocates.

As Mateo Cabellero, the legal director of the ACLU of Hawaii put it: “It’s like putting the cart before the horse.”

Bail reform is actually being examined by a second task force headed by Circuit Court Judge Rom Trader. The HCR 134 Task Force is also finishing its final report for the Legislature that zeroes in on pre-trial procedures so the courts can better manage caseloads.

Trader declined to comment specifically on the final report, which will also be sent to lawmakers in December. But he indicated there would be few surprises, meaning a recommendation for a radical departure from the current bail bond system is unlikely.

Trader did acknowledge that “brick and mortar facilities are expensive. To me, before one sort of wants to make any final decisions, it would be helpful to know what these reforms would have on our pretrial populations.”

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