People accused of nonviolent offenses in Hawaii may soon be freed on their own recognizance if a measure that has preliminary agreement from state legislators becomes law later this year.

Putting an end to Hawaii’s cash bail system has long been on the wish list of many criminal justice advocates who say bail unfairly impacts low-income individuals who can’t afford it. That in turn inflates Hawaii’s jail population, leading to higher costs for taxpayers, they say.

Those efforts have stalled in past years amid opposition from prosecutors and law enforcement groups worried that a large swath of criminal detainees could be released with little guarantee that they would return to court.

State legislators voted Wednesday to advance a bill that would allow suspects accused of nonviolent misdemeanors and some felonies to go free without bail. But neither law enforcement groups nor the reform advocates are getting everything they want.

Demonstrators hold signs fronting the OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Advocates for criminal justice reform scored a win Wednesday on a bill that could end cash bail for some low-level offenses. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

House Bill 1567 would preclude anyone accused of a traffic offense, nonviolent petty misdemeanor, nonviolent misdemeanor or nonviolent class C felony from having to post bail.

Hawaii’s jails and prisons housed 155 people awaiting trial in misdemeanor cases as of Monday. Another 768 detainees were awaiting trial on felony charges. It’s not clear how many of them could be released if HB 1567 were signed into law right now.

Earlier this session, that measure also would have allowed the state Department of Public Safety, which runs the state’s corrections system, to release anyone who was held on bail of $99 or less.

However, that provision was removed by a conference committee of state senators and representatives on Wednesday. The bill now heads to a final vote in both the House and Senate next week. If it wins approval there, it would head to Gov. David Ige for his consideration.

Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, said HB 1567 represents a small step forward in reforming the bail system. But she was disappointed that the provision allowing DPS to release individuals whose bail is $99 or less was removed.

She worried that bail could continue to impact many low-income individuals, including those who have been charged under ordinances targeting homeless people.

“It’s a start, but it’s not a victory,” Brady said of HB 1567. “We’re not getting to the end of the block yet. But I’ll take that first step and consider it a work in progress.”

Rep. Scott Matayoshi, who handled negotiations for the House, said in an interview that DPS raised concerns with the $99 provision. He said the department thought the decision on who to release was too subjective.

Representative Scot Matayoshi listens during joint WAM Finance info meeting held at the Capitol Auditorium.
Rep. Scott Matayoshi, right, said lawmakers made changes to the measure after hearing law enforcement concerns. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Earlier this year, the state Attorney General’s Office asked lawmakers to remove that section of the bill, calling it “unnecessary and inappropriate.” The AG’s office said in written testimony that the provision would impede the courts’ ability to protect the public. The office also testified that low bail amounts are usually set for people already in custody.

“In order to get this through, with as few problems as possible, we just took it out,” Matayoshi said, adding that he’s willing to revisit that section next year.

Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm also asked for additional exemptions to the ban on cash bail, according to Matayoshi.

HB 1567 already exempts anyone charged with negligent homicide, unauthorized entry into a dwelling, a violent crime or a sex offense, driving under the influence of an intoxicant, or violating a restraining order.

Many other suspects would also still be required to post bail. Those include people who failed to show up for court dates; had convictions of violent crimes in the last eight years; were awaiting trial; or were on probation, parole or conditional release for another offense at the time of their arrest; and anyone who presents a risk of danger to the public.

On Wednesday, lawmakers added two more exemptions for people who have committed habitual property crimes and some drug offenses. The exemption for some drug crimes was inserted to allow for treatment under Honolulu’s Weed and Seed program.

Matayoshi said the exemption for habitual offenders was intended to prevent thieves from being released without bail and stealing from stores again.

“That was never really the intention of the bill,” Matayoshi said. “We aren’t trying to keep everyone out of jail. Just the people that might have made a mistake and we don’t want them to lose their jobs or custody of their kids because of that mistake.”

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