The House Finance Committee has unanimously approved a bill that resurrects a number of proposals to change Hawaii’s bail system in an effort to ease overcrowding in correctional facilities.

Senate Bill 192 now contains word-for-word language from House Bill 1289, which called for implementing major recommendations from a criminal pretrial task force comprised of judges, prosecutors, public defenders, criminal defense attorneys, law enforcement officers and public safety officials.

HB 1289, which was killed last month, called for statutory changes making it easier for pretrial detainees to gain release if they were arrested for nonviolent crimes and not considered flight risks.

Originally built in 1916, the Oahu Community Correctional Center has been plagued by overcrowding and crumbling infrastructure. Supporters of bail reform say it would ease the overcrowding. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A defendant’s financial situation would also be taken into consideration before setting bail, and the posting of bail would be expedited so that defendants could get out of jail within 24 hours of their arrest.

The Senate Public Safety Committee had shelved HB 1289 after hearing concerns from the Attorney General’s office, the Honolulu Police Department, county prosecuting attorneys and victim advocates.

But SB 192, passed by the House Finance Committee on Friday, gives bail reform new life. Other bills moving forward at the Legislature could also be amended to incorporate more task force suggestions.

“We did add language from the pretrial reform bill in the Judiciary Committee back into a bill that is still alive relating to bail to try and move as much of the issue and recommendations forward as possible,” said Rep. Chris Lee, chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “I would hope that at the end of the day we are able to address all of the components and recommendations of the task force.”

SB 192 now awaits a full House vote to send it back to the Senate for consideration.

Given that the bill has been significantly amended (its original intent was to allow people in custody to petition courts for unsecured bail, something that remains part of the legislation), it is likely that differences will have to be hashed out in closed-door conference committee meetings later this month.

Other Reforms Still Alive

Criminal justice reform is emerging as a significant focus of lawmakers this session.

Several other measures are advancing, including ones calling for independent oversight of the state’s correctional system, notification of inmate or employee deaths, limitations on civil asset forfeiture and giving defendants the right to a prompt bail hearing.

The fate of House Bill 1552 is expected to be decided by the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Monday morning. That bill would establish a correctional system oversight commission, create and fund a coordinator for the commission and transfer the powers of the state’s Reentry Commission and Corrections Population Management Commission to the new commission.

Rep Chris Lee legislative informational briefing on prisons.
Rep. Chris Lee at a legislative informational briefing on prisons earlier this year. Lawmakers will likely have to compromise on bail reform measures for them to pass this session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

HB 1552 was proposed by another blue-ribbon task force that found Hawaii’s corrections system is “not producing acceptable, cost-effective, or sustainable outcomes and needs immediate and profound change.”

The oversight commission bill has also been notably amended. While it still would establish the commission, in its current form it also encompasses identical language taken from HB 1289 and also found in the new version of SB 192.

Such maneuvering is not uncommon at this point in the legislative session. Lawmakers face a deadline of May 2 to wrap everything up.

“I would hope that at the end of the day we are able to address all of the components and recommendations of the task force.” — Rep. Chris Lee

But these new House and Senate bills regarding bail reform are noteworthy for their large-scale copying and pasting.

Both bills could be further amended based on recommendations from the state Judiciary, the attorney general, the Department of Pubic Safety and other stakeholders.

Overcrowding Concerns

A driving force for acting on the suggestions from the task forces — which were created by the Legislature — is that Hawaii’s jails and prisons hold too many people at a significant cost to the state. But lawmakers have not embraced all of proposals addressing that.

Last month two Senate committees rejected a plan for the state to purchase the Honolulu Federal Detention Center to house some inmates. A bill decriminalizing the possession of 3 grams or less of marijuana and leveling a small fine will die unless the Senate Ways and Means Committee approves it this week. And a measure calling for a performance audit of sections of the Department of Public Safety is dead.

Director Public Safety Nolan Espinda sits during a briefing on prisons.
Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda at a briefing on prisons in January. His confirmation hearing for a second term is set for Thursday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The most dramatic development involving public safety could come Thursday afternoon, when Nolan Espinda, the director of the Department of Public Safety, has his confirmation hearing in the Senate.

Gov. David Ige appointed Espinda to a second four-year term, expressing satisfaction with improvements in reducing overtime costs and abuse of sick leave under his watch. But some senators have concerns about the agency’s lack of national accreditation, policies and procedures related to deputy sheriffs, the shooting death of a man by a deputy sheriff in February, the shooting death of an inmate who prison officials have said had escaped from the Oahu jail last month and the recent riot at the Maui jail.

After the riot, the DPS removed 37 pretrial inmates from Maui Community Correctional Center who were believed to have been involved in the disturbance, which Espinda attributed to dissatisfaction with overcrowded conditions. They were transferred to the Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu, although at least five have since been returned.

There remains as well discussion of building a new Oahu jail for more than $500 million, possibly in conjunction with a private prison company. The prison in Halawa Valley on Oahu is packed with prisoners, and Hawaii has nearly 1,400 prisoners housed in a private correctional facility in Arizona.

The Ige administration asked the Legislature for an additional $4.3 million to continue housing inmates on the mainland while security systems are upgraded at the Halawa facility.

The task force calling for the oversight commission of Hawaii’s jails and prisons said the state needs to overhaul its correctional system, focusing more on rehabilitation than incarceration.

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