Members of the new prisons oversight commission say they want to prioritize ways to ease jail and prison overcrowding, reentry programs, parole, transparency in the board’s proceedings, restorative justice and policies that lead to too many people being put behind bars — among other things.

In its inaugural meeting Thursday, five commissioners were sworn in and shared their initial vision.

The Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission was established by the Legislature in 2019 to refocus the state’s broken corrections system from punishment to rehabilitation. It absorbed two other commissions on prison population management and re-entry.

The commission was off to a slow start, as it was established in July 2019 but did not have its first meeting until Thursday and still does not have an oversight coordinator, a paid position it is entitled to by law. At the Thursday meeting, commissioners discussed advertising for the position.

Mark Patterson, administrator of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility and the former warden of the Women’s Community Correctional Center, was unanimously elected chair.

Patterson said he wanted the commission to take a broader look at the entire criminal justice system rather than focus too much on a single issue within the prisons.

“How do we look at it from a systemic approach and bring about change?” he said. The commission needs to look at bail reform, evidence-based programs, physical structures, medical and mental health issues, programs offered to prisoners — everything, he said.

Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission members were sworn in at its inaugural meeting on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. Yoohyun Jung/Civil Beat/2020

Another member, retired circuit judge Ronald Ibarra of Kona, said he was an advocate for keeping people out of jail in the first place. He said judges should be given more choices in programming and educated on what choices they have.

Martha Torney, a retired public safety administrator, said sentencing policy changes over the years have led to an increase in prison populations.

“I want to look at those areas,” she said.

Former Public Safety Director Ted Sakai said overcrowding and re-entry go “hand in hand.” Parole and probation should be priorities because they will help ease overcrowding, he said.

Retired judge Mike Town emphasized the need for transparency in the commission’s work.

The meeting drew a crowd of criminal justice advocates and community members interested in improving Hawaii’s prison system. Many spoke to commissioners about their hopes and concerns.

Jeff Nash, executive director of Habilitat, an addiction treatment program, told commissioners now is the time to correct the broken correctional system, if not for altruistic reasons then to stop throwing away taxpayer dollars.

“We’re wasting tons of money on something that everybody knows doesn’t work,” he said.

Justice Mike Wilson, who served as the chair of the legislative prison reform task force that produced a detailed report on how to improve the state’s correctional system, said he had high hopes for this oversight commission.

“The commission’s position is to be an agent of change,” he said.

The next prison oversight commission meeting is scheduled for Feb. 20.

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