There was a big leap forward last week for a bill to overhaul Hawaii’s bail system, a long-sought dream of criminal justice reformers, when it was approved unanimously by the state House and sent over to the Senate.
“I think there is strong support for bail reform in the House,” said Rep. Gregg Takayama, chairman of the House Public Safety, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. “It passed unanimously – hard to get much more support than that.”
But opposition to the measure, House Bill 1289 is rapidly growing, including from the newly appointed state Attorney General and other criminal justice officials who would need to implement the reforms.
Even Duane and Beth Chapman, celebrity bail bondsmen who star in the reality show “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” made an outsized appearance last week when they showed up at a House Finance Committee hearing to say they feared the law would make Hawaii a more dangerous place.
‘Practicable and Achievable’ Reforms?
The bill has been championed by a blue-ribbon task force made up of judges, prosecutors and criminal attorneys who spent a year reviewing the state’s bail policies. The panel found that the state was charging excessive bail, which has left too many inmates stuck in jail too long.
The legislation would require officials to make it easier for people to gain release if they are arrested for nonviolent crimes and are not a flight risk, permit more people to be cited instead of arrested and require consideration of a defendant’s financial situation before setting bail.
It would also allow people who are arrested to post bail 24 hours a day so they get out faster and no longer need to wait until the next business day or even longer.
Long-time criminal reform advocate Bob Merce, a member of the blue-ribbon panel, said he was “happy to hear it” when he learned the legislation had been approved by the House. He said that too many people are caught in jail because they can’t afford to pay bail to get out.
Hawaii’s Judiciary supports the measure, and has called the reforms “practical and achievable.” The Office of the Public Defender encourages its passage.
But there is substantial political muscle moving against the measure. Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors, recently appointed to her post by Gov. David Ige, said the department “appreciates the intent of this bill,” but that the bill was moving too far too fast.
The Department of Public Safety, responsible for the police and state detention facilities, said it does not have the resources to do what is being asked and that it would need an additional $750,000 a year to hire enough staff to do the paperwork and process arrestees 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The Honolulu prosecutor’s office said that while it “appreciates the Committee’s good intentions,” it would be best if the state first collected data about the effects of changes that have already been undertaken by criminal justice agencies to remedy many of these problems.
The Attorney General’s office, DPS and the Honolulu prosecutor’s office all participated on the task force that drafted the report and its recommendations.
Skepticism About Bail Reform Elsewhere
The Chapmans, who recently closed Da Kine Bail Bonds in Honolulu, said the task force report was excellent, but that Hawaii’s effort is seeking to copy bail-reform legislation that hasn’t worked well in other states in recent years.
Alaska, New Jersey and New Mexico have curtailed the use of bail; California went further by abolishing it. Some critics have said that the changes have resulted in “catch-and-release” policing and rising crime rates, while others worry that more people are being detained in jail without anyone to vouch for them through the bail system.
“We’re seeing in all these markets that it is failing miserably,” said Beth Chapman, who is also president of Professional Bail Agents of the United States, a national group that represents 15,500 bail bondsmen. “We can’t take this kind of a chance here in the islands, where we depend on tourism for a lot of our incomes, and where we would also jeopardize all of our communities because we want to give a thug a hug.”
The proposed legislation in Hawaii does not eliminate bail but omits language guaranteeing “sureties” that Beth Chapman believes could make it easier to eliminate bail bondsmen from the criminal justice system in the future.
In a recent interview, Takayama described the proposed reforms as more moderate than what was done on the mainland, particularly California.
“Unlike California, which took the very major step of repealing cash bail in almost all forms, this task force took a more measured approach by suggesting we eliminate cash bail starting with the less serious crimes,” he said.
At the hearing, Duane Chapman said that legislators in Hawaii are being purposely misled about conditions in the criminal justice system, which he said are better than they have been led to believe.
He said that some people are kept in jail and can’t make bail because families no longer want to help them or are afraid of them. “I get 100 calls a day, ‘Dog, if you get him out, don’t let him come by our house,’” he testified.
As the legislators voted in near harmony for the bill on Thursday, the one dissenting voice was Rep. Val Okimoto, who voted “aye with reservations.”
“I support the traditional bail system and believe this bill will make it even more onerous for our police officers and departments to meet existing public safety mandates and expectations,” Okimoto said in an emailed statement to Civil Beat.
Criminal justice advocates, on the other hand, have long called Hawaii’s system punitive, unfair and biased against people who don’t have the money to get out of jail when they are charged with crimes but have not been convicted.
The task force on pre-sentencing reform, which met for a year, found that Hawaii — and Honolulu in particular — is holding the people it arrests for a much longer time than other jurisdictions around the country.
According to the task force, bail on Oahu is typically set at $11,000 for a class C felony charge, an amount that includes crimes such as theft of goods worth more than $750.
Those bail levels continue to be customary in some places.
At a bail hearing held Thursday at the First Circuit Court in Honolulu, Judge Shirley M. Kawamura approved previously set bail amounts of $11,000, $15,000 and $11,000 in three cases. In one case she reduced the proposed bail amount of $15,000 to $5,000.
In an interview, Takayama said that holding people in jail who are “obviously not dangerous to the community” is costing Hawaii millions of dollars a year, at an average cost of $180 per inmate per night, money that he thinks could be better spent elsewhere.
Takayama said he isn’t sure what will happen with the legislation but he hopes it will pass.
“I think we have talked about bail reform for far too long to put it on a back burner now,” he said.
One issue on which everyone agrees is that in most of the state — with the Big Island the only exception — people who have been arrested for small infractions are stuck in jail overnight because the courts don’t keep nighttime hours. Most bail systems around the country operate 24 hours a day, allowing people to get out as soon as possible.
“We’re the only state that if it’s Friday, a holiday, you’ve got a problem,” Duane Chapman told legislators. “If Monday’s a holiday and Friday you get a jaywalking ticket, you’ve got a problem. You will be stuck with rapists and thugs in jail, that’s why our jails are so packed.”
DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said the department would need more money to extend operating hours, noting that the state’s “jails have neither the accounting resources, legal document interpretation, security nor safe cash storage capabilities to do so.”
She said it is different on the Big Island because bail can also be posted with the Hawaii County Police Department.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a reporter for Civil Beat. A long-time reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. You can reach her by email at email@example.com.