Louis Erteschik, the executive director of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, said delays in processing cases, while understandable during the pandemic, are problematic for Hawaii residents trying to get justice.
“They’ve been notoriously backed up for as long as I can remember but I don’t doubt that this has thrown them even further behind,” he said of the commission.
“It’s important in general in the legal system to try to get some sort of speedy resolution to whatever the issue is. There’s a lot of people who rely on the Civil Rights Commission.”
Hoshijo said the office couldn’t properly maintain social distancing if it were fully staffed anyway.
In an effort to maintain social distancing, the office isn’t accepting any in-person visits and is only interfacing with the public over the phone, through fax or by email.
“Going forward, for the duration of the pandemic emergency stay-at-home period, the HCRC will have capacity to provide assistance and information, assess and prioritize inquiries, conduct intakes, accept complaint filings and effect service of complaints,” Hoshijo wrote in an email to Civil Beat.
What’s missing is the ability to continue investigations in ongoing cases. Even before the pandemic, the commission was short-staffed and faced a growing backlog of cases.
Its annual caseload inventory has been growing steadily since fiscal year 2017, when it fell sharply from 380 to 205. In fiscal year 2019, it was back up to 321. On average, it takes nearly a year to resolve each case, according to the agency’s latest available annual report.
Hoshijo said that when some staffers returned to work on April 27, they encountered a backlog of pending inquiries and since then have focused on conducting intakes and filing and servicing complaints since then.
Staff were able to wrap up a few cases but those were generally those that were close to being resolved and where investigations had largely already been completed, he said.
Hoshijo said the backlog of cases in need of investigation “will have to be addressed once we are back at full capacity.”
“Given state budget concerns, possible cuts and a hiring freeze, this will be challenging,” he said.
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