Hawaii needs to collect more and better data, share that data between agencies, and actually start implementing policy proposals on reducing prison populations if it ever hopes to make meaningful reforms to the state’s criminal justice system.

Those are some of the major takeaways from an hour-long panel discussion, the second in a series from the state Judiciary titled “Confronting Racial Injustice.” Panelists during Friday’s event included Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm, Erin Harbinson, the executive director of the Criminal Justice Research Institute and RaeDeen Keahiolalo, the principal of Magma LLC.

The push for a more equitable justice system has picked up in the last year following protests over racial injustice. But Hawaii has been looking at those issues, specifically as it relates to corrections, for years.

“We’ve studied this to death, and it’s time to act,”  Keahiolalo said, adding that jailing more and more people has not helped the state.

A panel of experts wants to see better data collection to improve Hawaii’s criminal justice system. They include, clockwise from top left, William Bagasol, deputy public defender, RaeDeen Keahiolalo of Magma LLC, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm, and Erin Harbinson of the Criminal Justice Research Institute. Screenshot/2021

In the 1970s, the Legislature contemplated a smaller jail system paired with a progressive penal code that sought to minimize the amount of low level offenders winding up behind bars. What transpired instead was a tough on crime approach paired with county jails too small to house the newly incarcerated.

Overcrowded jails are a problem that persists now, even with two reports published in 2018 on creating a more rehabilitative corrections system and another focusing on pre-trial reform measures, which recommended eliminating Hawaii’s cash bail system.

One of those policy suggestions has been to end cash bail, something lawmakers rejected in 2019, but one that several bills, including Senate Bill 1244, propose this year. Keahiolalo also suggested similar proposals should pass and echoed support for better community reentry programs.

“If we’re thinking about the largest effect we can make in reducing reoffending and future crime, the community is a better place for it,” Harbinson said. “When you incarcerate people, there’s a lot of evidence demonstrating that those carry long-term consequences around education and employment — the very things preventing someone from returning to the criminal justice system.”

Keahiolalo said Hawaii should implement policy proposals from reports already available. She recalled one recommendation from the Native Hawaiian Justice Task Force that inmates be granted some form of state ID six months prior to release.

It’s those kinds of “low hanging fruit” that still haven’t been implemented, Keahiolalo said.

Alm said specialty courts, such as drug courts and mental health courts, should be expanded, echoing comments from Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald who called on lawmakers Wednesday to continue funding those programs.

Alm also called for more rehabilitation programs, as well as programs for individuals who are currently incarcerated.

The Honolulu prosecutor said his office will work more closely with the Honolulu Police Department to share data. Alm said he specifically wants to look at data regarding arrests and race, among other topics.

“Over the years at the prosecutor’s office, there was an intention not to identify race because we didn’t want to be accused of targeting anybody, so we just wanted to ignore, as far as I know, and never collect that kind of data. At this point, it’s something that should be done just so we can know how people are being impacted,” Alm said.

Micronesians, Samoans and Blacks were disproportionately represented in arrests over violations of COVID-19 orders, a Hawaii Public Radio investigation found last year.

State agencies, including the court system and the state Department of Public Safety which oversees corrections, also need to get better at sharing their data, the panelists said.

Disaggregating data could also help state agencies understand how groups of people in the state are affected by situations or certain policies, Harbinson said.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is spearheading efforts this legislative session to collect better data affecting Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

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