The state Department of Public Safety may soon be subject to more effective public scrutiny, improved conditions in the jails for inmates and people suspected of crimes and see much-needed pre-sentencing reforms.

Two bills passed Friday came in the waning days of a tumultuous legislative session where the shortcomings in the state’s corrections department were highlighted by news reports of a riot at the overcrowded Maui Community Correctional Center and an effort to unseat public safety director Nolan Espinda. He was nevertheless reconfirmed in his post Wednesday amid allegations of wrongdoing and mismanagement.

But even as they voted to let Espinda keep his position, lawmakers pledged to do a better job supervising the department. On Friday, a conference committee unanimously approved a measure designed to make it easier to keep tabs on the department’s performance in the future.

Sen Nishihara Rep Takeyama pose for photo after passing judiciary bill.
Sen. Clarence Nishihara, left, and Rep. Gregg Takayama shepherded major justice reform measures through the Legislature. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

House Bill 1552 — which still needs to get through the full House and Senate and then Gov. David Ige — was initially a narrow bill to provide more oversight of the department and address long-standing criticisms of the state’s correctional system. In the final weeks of the session, the measure was modified to include bail reform and a more comprehensive system to monitor the workings of the corrections department.

The measure would create a five-member criminal justice oversight commission, assisted by an independent, experienced administrator with correctional system experience, who would investigate complaints at the state’s jails and prisons and monitor inmate treatment and re-entry programs.

The commission, to be located in the state attorney general’s office, would also establish maximum inmate population limits for each state detention facility.

The bill would create a criminal justice institute, a separate body to collect information about how the public safety department is operating and review how inmates are being treated. It would track how recent changes in criminal justice practices in Hawaii are actually working, monitor national trends in corrections systems nationwide and look for ways Hawaii can benefit from new programs and procedures elsewhere.

Another part of the bill expedites the bail process so that people suspected of minor crimes no longer sit in jail for long periods while they await their trials. Suspects who are not dangerous would be permitted to post bail seven days a week instead of being kept in detention over the weekend if they are arrested on Friday.

The legislation was initially proposed at the urging of a blue-ribbon task force including judges, prosecutors, parole authorities, criminal justice reformers and Native Hawaiian activists who found the corrections system is “not producing acceptable, cost-effective, or sustainable outcomes and needs immediate and profound change.”

Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald attended the conference committee hearing where the bill was passed. The committee was led by Rep. Gregg Takayama, chair of the House Public Safety, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, and Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chair of the Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee. Conferees unanimously passed the measure.

“It’s historic, a big day,” Recktenwald said.

Takayama said he was very pleased with the vote.

“I’m so happy,” he said. “I think this is one of the key achievements for public safety, and for the Legislature, this year.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald flanked by Sen Nishihara Rep Takeyama, shake hands after posing for photos after conference committee passed judiciary bill.
Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald is flanked by Sen. Clarence Nishihara, left, and Rep. Gregg Takayama after a conference committee agreed on a bill that would put in place better prison oversight and improvements to the bail system. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Another measure, House Bill 336, which would require the public safety department to provide information about inmate deaths also passed the full Legislature Friday and is now on its way to the governor.

Critics of the state’s corrections department have raised particular questions about inmate deaths and suicides, particularly those of women, that they said had not been thoroughly explained.

The bill requires the department of public safety to report the deaths of inmates or guards within 48 hours to the governor, who will provide the information to the Legislature. It also requires the department to preserve forensic evidence that would allow investigators to determine if there is any indication that a sexual assault led to the death.

The public safety committee chairmen said a $5.1 million appropriation had been arranged to repair the Maui jail, and a total of $5.4 million to house inmates from Halawa Correctional Facility who are being held in Arizona because of construction delays at Halawa.

On Thursday, the House Finance and Senate Ways and Means Committee authorized about $8 million for additional construction of facilities at the Maui jail.

As the conference committee meeting ended, Nishihara, who had led the ultimately unsuccessful effort to unseat Espinda, exchanged a warm smile of congratulations with Takayama, his peer on the House side, soon after they passed the oversight legislation.

“It’s a satisfying end to the last conference committee,” Nishihara told Takayama.

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