That would be very unfortunate and even tragic, not only because the report (which is easily viewed online) is thoroughly researched and convincingly articulated. And because it’s something the Hawaii Legislature two years ago asked the Hawaii Judiciary to produce as a foundation for new legislation.
The main takeaway from the task force report: Hawaii puts too many people behind bars rather than trying to find ways to help people stay out. That is not news, nor are the conclusions that our more than 1,300 Hawaii prisoners in Arizona should be brought home and that too many Native Hawaiians are incarcerated.
What the task force has done that is fresh and impressive is put together in one document almost everything that is wrong with Hawaii’s criminal justice system and identified a logical, much-needed path forward.
The Oahu Community Correctional Center. As of Nov. 30, the dilapidated, overcrowded jail housed 1,050 male and 162 female prisoners. Gov. David Ige wants to spend $525 million to build a new one.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Among the recommendations to be considered and implemented “as a whole,” as the report states, are these:
Hawaii should immediately begin to transition from a punitive to a rehabilitative correctional system, because mass incarceration simply does not work;
Planning for a costly new Oahu Community Correctional Center should stop. Instead, the state should plan and design a jail that is “smaller, smarter, and less expensive than the one now under consideration”; and
The Legislature, which officially opens for business Wednesday, should create and fund an oversight commission to examine and monitor prison conditions and practices as an “implementation commission” to ensure that prison reform takes place “in a timely, efficient, and effective manner.”
“Hawaii is at a crossroads,” the report says. “If we continue on the path we have been on for the past four decades, we can expect the same poor outcomes and high recidivism rates we have experienced in the past, and our communities will not be safer despite the hundreds of millions of dollars we will spend on corrections.”
A new path will not be easy, and it will take new, innovative ways of thinking and collaboration among multiple stakeholders. As the task force authors point out, it took Hawaii 40 years to create the problems documented in the report.
Legislative leaders and state officials must no longer simply talk about fixing problems in the criminal justice system as they’ve done in the past. Remember the much-heralded Justice Reinvestment Initiative? How about proposals for overhauling the bail system?
Many people believe that Hawaii’s prisons are filled with extremely dangerous and violent prisoners, but that is a misconception.
This report clearly documents the many shameful truths that it’s time for all of us to own up to: that the majority of our prisons are filled with low-level offenders, that our recidivism rate is over 50 percent and that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on a system that is not working and is actually getting worse.
This is an issue all citizens in Hawaii should pay attention to. As the report demonstrates, communities are actually safer when prisons and jails are not turning people who started out as minor offenders into hardened career criminals. Rehabilitation programs conducted in a humane setting has broad positive effects.
State officials should begin now to review who is held at OCCC and release low-level and nonviolent offenders, especially the huge number of people who haven’t even been tried let alone convicted of a crime, people who are being held because they’re too poor to make bail.
As the task force urges, it is time for new leadership and new thinking in our corrections system, leaders who are excited about the possibilities and willing to consider successful initiatives that have been implemented on the mainland and even in Europe.
To that end, Gov. David Ige needs to reconsider his reappointment of longtime prison official Nolan Espinda as head of the Department of Public Safety and nominate someone who is not as invested in the status quo and better suited to lead a major reform effort. If Ige won’t come up with a new pick on his own, the Senate should refuse to confirm Espinda.
“The opportunities for real and lasting change in our correctional system are all within reach,” the report concludes.
Now we just need to move forward and build on this impressive work.
Make your voice heard. Two of the task force members — a broad and remarkable group that includes a Supreme Court justice, judges, prosecutors, defenders, politicians, scholars and activists — lead the two legislative committees most tasked with public safety issues. Here’s how to reach them:
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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Jim Simon, Richard Wiens, Chad Blair and Jessica Terrell. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at email@example.com.