A panel formed to oversee the state correctional system voted Thursday to ask for a delay in the planning and design of a proposed new $525 million Oahu jail, in part because members said the state needs to reconsider how large the new facility should be.

The five-member Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission voted unanimously to urge the state Department of Public Safety to create an advisory committee to “review, and if necessary revise the planning that has been done to date, and to actively participate in the planning process going forward.”

Ted Sakai, a commission member and former director of the Department of Public Safety, said the latest draft plan for a new jail at the old Animal Quarantine Station site in Halawa Valley calls for building a facility that can hold 1,380 male inmates.

A decline in the inmate population in recent years suggests the new jail that would replace the Oahu Community Correctional Center may not need to be as large as has been proposed. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

That new facility is supposed to replace the aging Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi, and Sakai said the projections of the need for jail space in the future were based on jail population data from 2018 or earlier.

But the OCCC population has dropped sharply from 1,027 male inmates on June 30, 2018 to 792 male prisoners on Dec. 7, Sakai said.

One major reason the OCCC population dropped during that time was the state Supreme Court ordered releases of non-violent offenders during the pandemic to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the jail, but Sakai said the OCCC population was dropping even before the pandemic.

And there was no crime wave after those inmates were released in response to the pandemic, Sakai said. Most of the inmates who were freed did not reoffend, and most of those who did “were re-arrested for poverty-related offenses such as lack of housing and lack of other resources,” he said.

“I think we really need to take a close look as to what’s going on, not only in the justice system … but also with the services available in the community before we decide how to move forward with the new OCCC,” Sakai told the commission.

Opponents of the plan to build a new jail have argued for years that Hawaii should instead invest in community-based programs such as drug treatment and mental health services to reduce the numbers of people who are jailed for minor crimes, a strategy they say would save the state money.

However, Sakai said he believes OCCC is in such a sorry state that it needs to be replaced. Some of the buildings that house inmates were temporary structures that were put up 50 years ago but are still in use, he said.

Gov. David Ige has also backed the plan to replace OCCC, and for years state lawmakers have been eyeing the 16-acre OCCC site in Kalihi as a promising urban redevelopment project. However, the Legislature has never appropriated the money that would be needed to actually build the new jail.

Public Safety officials issued a written statement after the commission meeting saying they are trying to comply with Act 122 of 2014, which appropriated $5 million to plan for the relocation of OCCC; and Act 124 of 2016, which appropriated another $5.4 million for some construction related to the project.

“We will review the report the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission submits to the legislature and determine the best path forward,” the department said in its written statement.

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