Two cash-strapped state panels — one to create and enforce standards for police and the other to oversee Hawaii’s jails and prisons — are facing more roadblocks this year in trying to accomplish their missions.

The Law Enforcement Standards Board and the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission were expecting a big fight for money this legislative session. Both blame insufficient resources for the lack of progress they have made in the goals set forth by the Hawaii Legislature.

But at this session’s midway point, much needed funding for the boards is still up in the air. 

Lawmakers have been unwilling to release more funds for the two panels unless Gov. David Ige commits to staffing both boards. He recently agreed to do so but there is still much uncertainty.

HPD Honolulu Police officers patrol along Kalakaua Avenue during COVID-19 pandemic. October 28, 2020
State boards tasked with setting standards for police and reforming Hawaii’s jail system may walk away without funding from the Legislature this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Until last week, the state budget was expected to take a major hit from the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic.

Now, however, Hawaii’s budget woes may be easing. Congress last week passed a major stimulus package with an estimated $1.6 billion flowing to Hawaii state government.

Ige’s office said it is still evaluating what effect the federal stimulus will have on the state budget.

With their future finances still uncertain, members of the two panels say they plan to continue their work. The corrections commission plans to meet regularly. And the police standards board says it may still try to implement basic certification standards for law enforcement in Hawaii, although it may miss a December deadline.

State Hasn’t Spent Available Funds

The Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission was created in 2019 after a blue-ribbon task force spent years studying correctional systems throughout the world in an effort to recommend major reforms to Hawaii’s beleaguered prisons and jails.

The commission is designed to be an independent overseer of the correctional system and needs money to hire an executive director and staff. The commission says, among other things, it needs to investigate complaints in the corrections system and implement some of the broad reforms recommended by the task force.

The Legislature created the Law Enforcement Standards Board in 2018 to oversee officer conduct, certify new officers and decertify any who fail to meet the board’s standards.

The two panels have both struggled with finances, though for different reasons.

In 2018, the police standards board got $100,000 in startup cash from lawmakers and was given one year to implement basic standards for officers. Ige raised concerns that the $100,000 would not be enough to fund the board. 

The Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission, pictured in 2020, has tried for months to get Ige to hire an executive director. Yoohyun Jung/Civil Beat/2020

In the year the board had to develop officer standards, it met just once to ask lawmakers for more time and more money. It got neither, and missed a 2019 deadline for having standards in place.

The board never touched its startup money, which lapsed in 2019, according to reports from the Attorney General’s Office. That means the board no longer has funding, according to the AG.

The board has asked lawmakers for three years in a row for money to hire staff and researchers that could help put together basic training standards for officers in Hawaii.

Meanwhile, the corrections commission has tried to spend its money, but ran into roadblocks in Ige’s administration.

In 2019, lawmakers gave the commission $158,000 for fiscal year 2020 and $330,000 for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. The commission tried to get Ige to release those funds so it could hire an executive director last year, but the administration declined to do so.  

The AG’s office, where the commission is attached, requested $369,000 in each of the next two fiscal years to pay for four staff positions, including an executive director.

The governor included just $10,000 in his proposed spending plan, according to budget documents.

Lawmakers Want Commitment

Lawmakers have so far declined to advance funding measures for the two cash-strapped boards.

Senate Bill 1046 would give the police standards board $292,500 to fund an administrator and clerical worker to help the board with research and create policy proposals.

But the bill failed to clear its last Senate committee and a similar measure was never heard in the House. 

House Bill 1110 sought $330,000 for the corrections commission staff, but it failed to make it through hearings in House committees.

Legislators in charge of the state budget said they won’t give either board more funds until they get commitment from the governor that his administration will fill staff positions for those two commissions.

Rep. Sylvia Luke, center row left, and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, bottom, want the governor to commit to hiring staff for the two commissions. The two money committee chairs participated in a Civil Beat event last week. Screenshot

“The problem with those two issues is whether the administration will commit to hiring and continue to keep those two committees going,” House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said last week during a Civil Beat panel.

“I think it was never really about funding, because we did provide funding. One of the things we need to figure out is, because there was already funding intact, will the administration commit to hiring somebody and commit to the two programs the Legislature enacted?”

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz said the Senate supports the two commissions, but also wants assurance that the administration will make progress with the two boards.

Ige declined to be interviewed for this story, but his office said that he would commit to staffing both the boards. His office did not provide a timeline for when those positions could be filled.

That Ige will staff the boards was welcome news to Luke.

“If the administration is at least showing commitment to support the commissions and use the funds that we allocate then there definitely is an interest to pursue it again,” Luke said in an interview Friday afternoon.

While funding measures for the prison commission and standards board have both died, Luke said the Legislature could still appropriate funding by injecting those provisions into a bill that is still alive.

Luke said it may also be possible to insert funding directly into the budget bill, House Bill 200, which has until March 22 to move out of the House.

Boards Continue Work

Whether or not they get funding, chairmen for the two boards say that the groups will press forward in their work.

Mark Patterson, the corrections commission chair and administrator of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, said the group will still continue its work even without funding and staff. He plans to reach out to the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific University for help conducting research, but emphasized that the commission still needs staff to perform tasks like investigating complaints from inmates in the jails and prisons.

That would require full-time staff with legal expertise, Patterson said.

“I can’t see us going another two years without staff,” he said.

Patterson sees funding for the commission as an investment the state could make to help it reduce its jail population and improve outcomes for those who are released.

“Any kind of economic recovery has to involve these populations. We’re looking at intergenerational poverty, intergenerational incarceration,” Patterson said. “$200,000? $300,000? Can’t that be worth it in helping the state navigate those problems?”

The Law Enforcement Standards Board, in a virtual hearing in December, still plans to create standards for police but may miss a December deadline. Screenshot/2020

Kauai Police Chief Todd Raybuck, chairman of the police standards board, said members plan to continue to develop basic standards for officers even without funding or a staff to research policies.

“Like many other entities and companies facing budget problems we’ll have to do our best to do what we can with what we have,” Raybuck said last week.

The Legislature has given the board until Dec. 31 to come up with basic certification standards for officers in Hawaii. Raybuck doesn’t think the board will be able to finish by then.

“I don’t see a way to do that without a full-time staff and budget to do it,” Raybuck said.

He’s also wary about a tight timeline, noting that Oregon took several years to finalize standards even with staff and a budget.

The board is expected to meet in early April to hear findings from board members on standards in other states and possible administrative rules.

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