Hawaii could have a lot fewer people in jail if it reduced the use of pretrial detention and stopped locking people up for probation violations, a new report by ACLU Hawaii says.

The Blueprint for Smart Justice Hawaii report, which is part of a national campaign by the American Civil Liberties Union to reduce prison populations by 50% and reduce racial disparities in correctional systems around the country, lays out the problems and solutions specific to Hawaii.

Between 1980 and 2005, when the prison population hit its peak, the number of people locked up in Hawaii’s prisons ballooned by 524%, the report said.

Four facilities across the islands are operating above their capacities, each by at least 25%, and overcrowding led inmates to start a riot at the Maui facility in March, which caused $5 million in damage.

Putting more people in prison is not making Hawaii residents any safer, said Monica Espitia, the Smart Justice campaign director for ACLU Hawaii. “If we better the system, we will actually be safer,” she said.

Four facilities across the islands are operating above their capacities. Maui Community Correctional Center is one of them. Yoohyun Jung/Civil Beat/2019

Some of the major issues that her team has identified were the high number of pretrial detainees and parole and probation violators who were incarcerated, she said.

The report points out that in 2018, one in five of those imprisoned was not yet convicted of a crime, and a quarter were imprisoned for parole or probation violations. Those violations can range from committing another crime to technical violations, such as missing curfew.

Not incarcerating those people and investing in diversion or treatment programs instead has worked in other states, Espitia said, adding that the state spends too much money locking people up — $255 million in 2017.

“If we spend that money on services, that would be helpful,” she said.

But putting parole and probation violators back in jail is sometimes necessary, said state Rep. Gregg Takayama, the chair of the House Public Safety Committee. He is also a member of the prison reform task force that produced a detailed report that included numerous recommendations that Espitia says many of the blueprint report’s solutions are modeled after.

Rep Gregg Takayama during leg briefing on prisons.
State Rep. Gregg Takayama has advocated for parole and probation violators to be housed in their own facility. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“There’s no easy answer,” said Takayama, who had not reviewed the ACLU report. “It’s intended as a wake up call. It’s a last resort.”

He had previously introduced a measure in the Legislature to house probation and parole violators in a separate facility that provides more treatment services. That was unsuccessful.

The report also recommends expanding compassionate releases. The Legislature passed a bill to allow compassionate release for terminally ill inmates earlier this year but it was vetoed by Gov. David Ige.

Many of these issues aren’t unique to Hawaii, Espitia said.

However, what makes Hawaii different in some aspects is how challenging it has been to gather some data points required to dig into the correctional system, said Leah Sakala, a policy associate for the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that worked with the ACLU in producing similar reports across the country.

“It’s hard to develop solutions if you don’t have information about the problems,” she said.

For example, there were gaps in information about who was being put into prison, for what reason and for how long, all of which are data points that are well-tabulated in many other states, she said.

Overrepresentation of Native Hawaiians is a well-known issue, and lack of data was “a huge gap,” she said.

There were also gaps in data about inmates with mental health and substance abuse problems, which gives advocates here working in that arena a big disadvantage in trying to help people, Sakala said.

“There are some pretty serious red flags on how Hawaii has handled its correctional system,” she said. “It’s really important that policymakers and the public have the right information to advocate for improvement.”

Espitia, the Hawaii Smart Justice campaign director, said people tend to equate prison reform with compromises to public safety and get scared. That’s not true, she said. The conditions of the correctional system are just creating more victims.

“Reform will only make us safer,” she said.

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