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One day after 21 inmates at the Maui jail rioted in protest of overcrowded conditions, a state Senate committee killed legislation to reform the state’s bail system.
The timing appears coincidental. A staff member for state Sen. Clarence Nishihara, who chairs the committee that shelved House Bill 1289, said there were concerns from the state attorney general’s office, the Honolulu Police Department, county prosecuting attorneys and victim advocates.
Even though HB 1289 was one of the recommendations of a blue-ribbon task force, had the support of the Department of Public Safety and the state Judiciary and passed the House unanimously, it’s dead for the 2019 session barring emergency resuscitation.
There are several other bills alive that seek to help ease conditions at our bursting-at-the seams correctional facilities, but HB 1289 showed promise.
Now, thanks to the Nishihara’s Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee, bail reform is back on the back burner.
Before the riot, MCCC had 109 more inmates than it should have, with 168 of the 410 people in custody classified as pretrial detainees — that is, people who are innocent until proven guilty. It is quite possible that some of those 168 people could have been out on bail while awaiting their court date.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety told Civil Beat on Monday that it cannot release the names of the 21 inmates because it would impede ongoing criminal investigations by the Maui Police Department and the department’s internal investigation.
The inmates’ charges range from those that might well warrant holding them in their new home in the medium security Halawa prison on Oahu — terroristic threatening, sex assault and arson, for example — to some that might not — like forgery, fraudulent use of a credit card and driving without a license.
It’s important to review what happened to HB 1289. But legislators need to act on several other bills that could help ease conditions and operation of our jails and prisons.
House Bill 1552 would create an independent oversight commission for the state’s correctional system, while House Bill 1383 would call for cash fines rather than criminal charges for the possession of small amounts of marijuana. House Bill 1177 would pony up money to buy the Federal Detention Center next to the Honolulu airport to ease overcrowding in the state’s current facilities.
All three measures have cleared the House and have Senate hearings Tuesday. A fourth, Senate Bill 192, would allow a defendant in custody to petition a court for unsecured bail. It has passed the Senate and one House committee but awaits two more House committee hearings.
Now, about that dead bail bill.
The legislation would have made it easier for detainees to gain release if they were arrested for nonviolent crimes and were not flight risks. It would have permitted more people to be cited instead of arrested and would have required consideration of a defendant’s financial situation before setting bail. It would also have allowed people who are arrested to post bail 24 hours a day so they could get out faster, instead of having to wait until the next business day or even longer.
The Hawaii attorney general’s office, the Honolulu Police Department, county prosecuting attorneys and victim advocate groups opposed HB 1289. Their concerns included wanting more time to allow other task force recommendations to be implemented and for data collection and analysis, as well as worries that public safety might be put at risk.
It’s odd that the task force itself was comprised of representatives from many of these same groups, as well as Nishihara.
And it’s a shame senators did not heed testimony in HB 1289’s favor from the Community Alliance on Prisons, which succinctly summed up the problem with the existing bail system:
How does a system that relies on money bail protect public safety? Money bail doesn’t keep violent people locked up; it just keeps poor people locked up. People who may pose a threat to public safety can still get out of jail; they just need to have the money to do it. Even a few days in jail can have lifelong consequences for a person.
Bolstering that view is the fact that the task force found that bail on Oahu is usually set at $11,000 for a class C felony charge — an amount that includes crimes such as theft of goods worth more than $750.
The deplorable conditions at the Maui jail, meanwhile, are not new.
The Maui News reported March 12 that ACLU Hawaii complained to the U.S. Department of Justice two years ago that the jail was “the most egregiously overcrowded facility” in the state. In 2015, the same newspaper reported that there were four inmates in a 13-by-8-foot cell designed for two with inmates sleeping on mattresses on the floor, sometimes inches away from the toilet.
Five of Hawaii’s nine detention facilities are currently over capacity and all but one have operational capacities beyond what they were originally designed for. And nearly half the inmates are defendants awaiting trial, not people convicted of crimes.
The public safety department said Monday that MCCC is working to get operations back to normal. Staff continue to have an “armed perimeter as a precaution, but since removing the 21 inmates who aggressively participated in (last week’s) disturbance, the mood and overall atmosphere has calmed,” the department said.
The motivation for the inmates to bust up furniture and set fires remains under investigation. But the department has already said it “appears to be dissatisfaction with conditions related to the extreme overcrowded conditions.”
Back at you, Legislature.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.