Big changes may be coming for criminal justice in Hawaii as a result of a package of bills approved by the Legislature this year.

The state could see a top-to-bottom institutional transformation.

Low-income people charged with nonviolent crimes who are not considered flight risks may find it easier to get out of jail while awaiting trial. The state’s eight jails and prisons would be independently monitored by expert criminologists committed to reform. And for the first time, the state would have a system to track statistics on crime, the courts, punishment and rehabilitation.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald flanked by Sen Nishihara Rep Takayama, shake hands after posing for photos after conference committee passed judiciary bill.
Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, center, with Sen. Clarence Nishihara, left, and Rep. Gregg Takayama after a conference committee agreed on the oversight bill in April. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Now criminal justice reform advocates wait to see if Gov. David Ige will sign the measures into law.

If the bills are enacted and effectively implemented, it could be a “game-changer” for criminal justice, said Robert Merce, a board member of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. and a long-time advocate of treating prisoners humanely.

The measure Merce “loves the most” is House Bill 1552, which would create a five-person oversight commission to monitor jails and prisons with the goal of creating “positive reform towards a rehabilitative and therapeutic correctional system.”

It would also establish a criminal justice institute to examine all areas of criminal justice, including the police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and correctional officers, collecting and interpreting data about their performance. Ongoing scandals in law enforcement and among prosecutors have underscored the need for more scrutiny.

“The words that I use to describe it are that this will create systems that are safer, smarter and more transparent, at least that’s my hope,” said Rep. Gregg Takayama, chairman of the House Public Safety, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee, who authored much of the legislation.

The oversight commission would monitor the correctional system, with the assistance of a trained coordinator who is “well-versed in criminal justice reform and maintains a firm commitment to the correctional system’s transition to a rehabilitative and therapeutic model,” according to the law.

An important first step would be making sure well-qualified people fill those positions, according to Merce and Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons.

Bob Merce, a member of the criminal justice task force, displays a copy of its report, which influenced legislation approved this session. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

“We need people who are forward-thinking, who look at people in their custody as human beings who have screwed up and who need help to get on track,” Brady said.

The Hawaii Chapter of the ACLU has been a fierce critic of Hawaii’s criminal justice system for two decades. Monica Espitia, director of the organization’s Smart Justice campaign, says it would monitor the commission.

“We’ll be watching closely,” Espitia said. “We have a lot of hope for that.”

The commission would be housed in the state Attorney General’s office.

The criminal justice institute would be overseen by a board of directors, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, a representative of the governor, the director of public safety and one appointee selected by the Senate president and another by the speaker of the House.

The chief justice would appoint a director for the institute, who would hold a doctoral degree and experience in the criminal justice field.

Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald said the institute is “a really good idea.”

“We’ve worked on this, but we will be looking at the data that we are getting, what programs work, what programs don’t, how do we keep people safe. Obviously there’s a real give and take. How do we keep people safe, to me that’s what it’s all about.”

Pretrial Release Proposals

The ACLU’s Espitia is also cautiously optimistic about Senate Bill 192, which would authorize judges to release detainees on unsecured bail by taking into account their employment history, family ties and prior criminal records. The ACLU recently published a series of reports highlighting the problem of poor people being stuck in jail because they can’t afford to make bail while more affluent people pay their way to release.

“The unsecured bond is good if judges use it,” she said. “In states like New York, it’s been available for years but … judges still rely heavily on cash bail.”

The long-time problem of people on Oahu being stuck in jail over the weekend because it was impossible to get bailed out was addressed in House Bill 1423, which would allow a court-appointed person to be available on weekends to handle bail payments and provide receipts that can be delivered to the jail so the detainee can be released.

That’s a “giant leap,” said bail bondsman James Lindblad, who has seen people arrested for minor crimes on a Friday stuck in jail till Tuesday on a holiday weekend.

House Bill 629 would provide mechanisms for inmates who are ill or elderly to obtain release to get more appropriate medical and palliative care. Nursing homes would need to be prepared for the arrival of released inmates who are sick, disabled or dying.

The circumstances behind the deaths of inmates and guards in correctional facilities would be open to new scrutiny as a result of House Bill 336, which would require corrections officials to tell the governor, and then the Legislature, when these events occur.

Takayama has promised to make this information available to the public and the media.

Public safety officials in Hawaii sometimes withhold information about the deaths of inmates and guards, leading to speculation about mistreatment or violence they may have suffered.

Sen Nishihara Rep Takayama pose for photo after passing judiciary bill.
Nishihara, left, and Takayama celebrate passage of the oversight bill in a conference committee. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The raft of criminal justice legislation follows the release last December of reports by two task forces that highlighted problems in the state’s criminal justice system. Task force members included judges, prosecutors, probation officers, lawyers and correctional officers.

One report addressed ways to improve the bail process and make it more equitable to poor people, and the other looked at structural and institutionalized problems.

“We had the benefit of the two task force reports,” Takayama said. “We used that as the basis of bill introduction, and it was important to me to get the highlights … We took out the most important elements of each task force and we were able to get them implemented.”

Takayama credited the “work of the citizens who participated” on the task forces as key to getting the laws passed.

Among the people whose efforts have been widely acknowledged are Magistrate Judge Rom Trader, who chaired the pre-sentencing task force, First Circuit Judge Shirley Kawamura and Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilson.

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