A Senate committee voted against Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda’s reconfirmation Thursday afternoon, in effect recommending that their colleagues reject him when the full Senate votes.

The committee’s recommendation may lead to a showdown with Gov. David Ige in the waning days of the 2019 Legislature.

Ige reiterated his support for Espinda in an emailed statement Thursday afternoon. Ige cited Espinda’s reduction of overtime hours, increases in inmate visitation hours and better services for parolees.

“I know that Senators will look at his complete record and see that he is well qualified to serve another term,” Ige said in the statement.

Committee members criticized Espinda’s leadership of both the prison system and the state Sheriff Division.

Director Public Safety Noland Espinda during decision making.
Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda, holding a notebook, listens as the committee makes its decision to recommend the Senate not confirm him for a second term. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The vote of the Public Safety, Intergovernmental & Military Affairs Committee came as no surprise to Espinda, who said that the committee members had been indicating for the past month that they would not recommend he continue as public safety chief.

Senators Roz Baker, Breene Harimoto and Clarence Nishihara, the committee chair, voted against Espinda’s reconfirmation. Senators Glenn Wakai and Kurt Fevella also voted with the majority, but with reservations.

Espinda told reporters after the hearing that he is not sure how the full Senate will vote.

“We have accomplished a lot in the last four years. I think continuity going forward will help the department achieve significant advances in the coming years,” Espinda said.

Lawmakers Challenge Espinda

Baker said Thursday that the department cut staff to give the appearance of reducing overtime costs, something that Espinda previously denied happened. And Nishihara said that teleconference visits between inmates and their families shouldn’t count as visitation hours.

“If you have no personal, face-to-face contact, and it’s all done through television monitors between inmates and their family members, I don’t consider that visitation,” Nishihara said.

Committee members did not pin all the department’s shortcomings on Espinda.

Harimoto said that many of the problems, like jail overcrowding, predate Espinda. And Wakai said that the Legislature needs to take some of the responsibility for not fully funding the department.

“If we think public safety is important, we should be resourcing you properly so you can do your job correctly,” Wakai told Espinda shortly before the vote.

The vote came after the committee held two hearings. It took public testimony April 4 and then grilled the DPS director and his deputy director Tuesday, when many of its questions about recent shootings and a jail riot went unanswered.

In February, a deputy sheriff shot a homeless man during a struggle on the Capitol grounds. In March, corrections officers fatally shot an inmate after he escaped from the Oahu Community Correctional Center.

Also last month, inmates at the Maui Community Correctional Center rioted, causing an estimated $5.3 million worth of damages. Espinda said inmates were upset about overcrowded conditions.

DPS has proposed an 80-unit, medium security housing facility to help alleviate the overcrowding at the Maui jail. Construction is expected to begin in 2020 and finish in 2021.

A System In ‘Deep, Deep Rot’

Committee members and people who testified also complained that even though state deputy sheriffs were required by the Legislature since 2011 to obtain accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, DPS has yet to even apply for the accreditation.

Chair Clarence Nishihara Espinda decision making.
From left, committee members Sens. Roz Baker, Glenn Wakai, Clarence Nishihara and Breene Harimoto at Thursday’s hearing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On Tuesday, Nishihara, the committee chairman, described the state’s corrections system as being in “deep, deep rot.”

The same day, Espinda said that he wants his department to implement some of the criminal justice reforms from a task force report that recommended moving away from a punitive system to one that is more rehabilitative.

One of that report’s goals was to reduce recidivism rates, or the rate that inmates reoffend after being released from jail or prison. Espinda said that, under his administration, DPS reduced its recidivism rate from over 50% percent to around 47%.

A separate task force report on pretrial procedures proposed reforms to the bail system and reducing the amount of pretrial detainees.

As of March 31, there were 2,058 inmates in Hawaii’s four jails, which have an operating capacity of 1,609. About 911 of those inmates, 44%, were pretrial detainees.

While Espinda was criticized by several DPS employees at the April 4 hearing, he also got a lot of support from fellow cabinet members and other DPS administrators.

Civil Beat previously reported that Espinda was one of three of Ige’s cabinet members who may not make it through the reconfirmation process.

Ige announced March 29 that he would not renominate the other two directors, Rod Becker and Jobie Masagatani from the Department of Budget and Finance and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

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