Hawaii had a framework in place to tackle police and prison reform before the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and the reckoning of the criminal justice system that followed.

But in 2020, several state panels created to find solutions to overcrowded prisons, develop basic training standards for police and independently investigate officer-involved killings have been hampered by the pandemic and access to resources. 

Now, as the state faces an historic budget crisis, the groups’ futures are uncertain.

The Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission is one of several state boards that have made little progress on their state mandates in the last year. Yoohyun Jung/Civil Beat/2020

The commission tasked with overseeing prisons and jails has stalled because it can’t get money from the state. A board formed to develop basic training and certification standards for law enforcement has struggled to get going without more money from the Legislature. And a panel convened to investigate officer-involved deaths still has not met this year and has made no promises on when it might reconvene.

“I’m tired of giving excuses,” Mark Patterson, chair of the corrections commission and administrator of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, said. “There isn’t much we really need to become an effective force.”

Both the corrections commission and standards board plan to ask the Legislature for more money at the session that starts in January. Lawmakers, meanwhile, are contemplating significant budget cuts.

“There has to be little or no expectation (the Legislature) will provide any additional funding,” House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said.

Prison Commission: ‘Big Fight’ Ahead

Patterson as well as other members of the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission are frustrated with their slow progress in transforming the state’s jails and prisons.

The commission, created in 2019 based on recommendations from a landmark report on Hawaii’s punitive jail system, has been hamstrung by lack of access to state funding. 

The commission got off to a slow start in 2019 before finally holding its first meeting in January. And although the Legislature set aside more than $388,000 spread across the last two years for the commission to use on research, staffing and travel — the members have not been able to tap into any of it.

The Department of the Attorney General, which houses the commission, asked to use some of that funding to hire an oversight coordinator in July. But the state department in charge of the budget declined to release those funds.

The commission sent names of candidates for the director position to the governor, but without any funding, it’s not likely one would be chosen.

The oversight coordinator would oversee the corrections system and ensure it transitions to a model that is rehabilitative instead of punitive. The director, Patterson says, should be able to conduct research and advise the commission on what policies it should adopt.

“If we had that coordinator position, we could be more upfront. We could be ahead of the ball,” Patterson said in an interview.

Oahu Community Correctional Center razor wire inside jail.
The commission charged with overseeing Hawaii’s correctional system is struggling to get the money it needs to operate from the state. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

At the last commission meeting, Patterson asked if there was any progress on the budget or coordinator position. The deputy attorney general assigned to the board said there were still no updates.

The situation frustrates not only Patterson, but also the commissioners.

At the meeting, the commissioners discussed capping the inmate population size, pushing for pre-trial reform measures in the Legislature and evaluating what progress they’ve made in the last year.

“All these things we discussed, most could be addressed by our budget and hiring the coordinator,” retired judge Ronald Ibarra said. “Most of the power and authority we need to execute falls under the oversight coordinator.”

Patterson also worries about the commission’s future. 

The legislation that created the commission only set aside enough funds through June 30. Without additional support from the Legislature, Patterson is worried that the commission might have to come to an end before it really gets going.

He said there’s been little communication with the administration on a budget request for the next session.

The state Department of Budget and Finance did not respond to an inquiry from Civil Beat regarding the commission’s finances.

“We’re just asking for the one person written in the law. It’s not like we need money for programs, the money is for the oversight coordinator,” Patterson said.

“We don’t know our fate yet, but this legislative session is going to be a big fight for us,” he predicted.

Police Standards Board: A ‘Heavy Lift’

The Law Enforcement Standards Board is also looking for more state money.

The Legislature gave the board $100,000 in 2018. But the board never spent that money and it has since lapsed, according to the board’s annual reports.

Now the standards board is asking the Legislature for $483,000, an amount it arrived at based on estimates for salaries and office equipment from other state agencies, according to Kauai Police Chief Todd Raybuck, who chairs the board.

Part of the funding would pay for an executive director, who would compile research and recommend policies to the board. The director would be accompanied by research staff, who could also monitor trends in law enforcement policies around the nation.

Hawaii is the last state in the nation to have a statewide board that sets standards for law enforcement. The Legislature last year also gave the board the authority to decertify officers.

HPD Honolulu Police Dept officers at Re-Open Hawaii rally at the Capitol during Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. May 1, 2020
The Law Enforcement Standards Board plans to ask the Legislature for more money. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Hawaii is also an outlier compared to other states in that it does not have dedicated staff to conduct research into law enforcement policies. 

For example in Nevada, the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training functions much like a department, with individual staff sections on audits, records and training. The commission is funded through state court assessments.

Without staff, Raybuck has started writing letters to other law enforcement boards around the country to gather ideas for Hawaii’s standards and see what challenges those boards faced when they first started. Responses are still coming in, but Raybuck said that since some boards are decades old, finding members that remember a time when the boards were first established has been difficult.

Parsing through all the information has been another challenge.

“It’s a heavy lift,” Raybuck said. “We don’t currently have anyone to help with that lift.”

Police Killings Review Board Still Stalled

The Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board, a panel of citizens and former law enforcement officials charged with independently investigating officer-involved deaths, has not met since January.

Just this year, there have been three officer-involved deaths on Oahu alone and numerous others statewide since the board was created a few years ago. The latest involved 28-year-old Isaiah Pama, whose died in police custody. The medical examiner determined his underlying heart condition was exacerbated by a struggle with officers and being confined in shackles.

Unlike the other two boards, this panel does not suffer from financial woes.

Any expenses the board incurs are paid out of the criminal forfeiture fund which holds monies collected by the government from the sale of seized property. The board hasn’t used any money from that fund yet, according to Krishna Jarayam, a spokesman for the AG’s office. The AG’s office has handled administrative responsibilities for the board. 

While dozens of other boards and commissions have found ways to meet remotely, the review board has not. And there is still no clear indication when it might meet again.

“Much like every other board and commission, they’re going to go remote and so should be starting back up soon,” Jarayam said in an email.

Budget Situation Dire

Despite the need for money to get these boards operating effectively, the governor and Legislature appear poised to make budget cuts instead.

Ige is still contemplating furloughs and layoffs to help balance the state budget, and in addition, the state still needs to find savings of about $600 million each year, the governor said during an interview with Civil Beat earlier this month.

Ige said programs and positions paid for by the state’s general fund would be subject to furloughs, although those in critical services like hospitals and jails probably won’t be impacted.

Ige previously asked all state departments to consider program cuts for scenarios in which the budget is chopped by 10%, 15% and 20%. Major purchases have also been halted. Ige is expected to unveil the biennium budget that would cover 2021 through 2023 in mid-December.

Representative Sylvia Luke during 2020 joint press conference.
House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said state agencies shouldn’t expect any budget additions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Rep. Sylvia Luke, chair of the House Finance Committee, said the Legislature must find ways to restructure government, and that could include program cuts. Not only is the state contending with an estimated $2 billion budget hole, but Luke said lawmakers must also find ways to pay off millions of dollars of debt the state took on to shore up the budget.

“It comes down to prioritization of state programs,” Luke said. “If there are certain agencies that cannot function and cannot do their work, including commissions that the Legislature set up to provide services, we really need to consider whether we need to eliminate those agencies if the only way they are going to be able to function is if they need additional monies or positions.”

She suggested counties take up more responsibility regarding law enforcement standards, and possibly have the Legislature step in to oversee the corrections system under the Department of Public Safety.

Luke said any budget additions should be considered on a case-by-case basis. And if funding does go through for the standards board or corrections commission, it could mean less funding for another program.

Civil Beat reporters Eleni Avendaño and Kevin Dayton contributed to this story.

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