It took years to get it done, but Gov. David Ige has finally appointed a former New York City corrections monitor to serve as oversight coordinator for the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission. That commission is tasked with moving Hawaii’s prisons and jails to a “rehabilitative and therapeutic model” of corrections.

The five-member commission was created by the Legislature in 2019, but has been hamstrung ever since because it has no staff. The commissioners meet monthly to hear reports on the Hawaii system and make annual reports to the Legislature, but the commission has been unable to perform most of the body’s other responsibilities, including investigating complaints.

Jodi Leong, spokeswoman for Ige, said the governor on April 4 appointed a former New York Board of Corrections monitor named Christin Johnson to be the Hawaii commission’s first oversight coordinator.

Demonstrators hold signs fronting the OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Demonstrators hold signs fronting the Oahu Community Correctional Center on April 18. The new coordinator is supposed to help the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission shift to a more rehabilitative model. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Johnson, 30, worked from 2017 to 2020 as a monitor enforcing compliance with consent decrees, minimum standards and the policies of New York’s Department of Corrections, a job that involved site visits three times a week to the Brooklyn Detention Center. That facility has about 800 inmates, and a staff of more than 500 officers.

She was also an analyst in the office of the Legislative Corrections Ombudsman in Lansing, Michigan, for three years, which involved investigating complaints from inmates and others concerned with Michigan Department of Corrections facilities. She also pressed for changes including programming and treatment in Michigan’s female juvenile unit.

More recently, Johnson was lead oversight specialist in the Office of Oversight and Public Accountability in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The law that created the Hawaii coordinator’s position sets the salary for the position at $154,812 per year, and Johnson’s term expires on Nov. 30, 2023.

Commission Chairman Mark Patterson declined to comment Monday on the appointment because the hiring process has not yet been completed.

Johnson did not return a call seeking comment.

The coordinator’s position was left unfilled for a time after Act 179 created the commission in 2019, and was then caught in the hiring freeze that Ige imposed after the pandemic hit. The commission was finally cleared to hire a coordinator last fall as the economy began to recover and federal aid flowed into the state.

The commission has become involved in a number of controversial correctional issues in recent years, most notably by urging the state Department of Public Safety to delay plans for a new jail that would replace the aging and inefficient Oahu Community Correctional Center.

OCCC is the state’s largest jail, and corrections officials say the state urgently needs a more modern facility to reduce operating costs and provide more opportunities for programming and services for jail inmates.

But commission members, who include two retired state judges and former Department of Public Safety Director Ted Sakai, want the department to delay planning for the new jail to hear alternative proposals to reduce the numbers of people who are locked up.

They want the department to consider ideas such as overhauling Hawaii’s cash bail system. That might allow the state to plan for a smaller facility with fewer inmates that will cost less to operate.

For the past three years the commission has also supported bail reform initiatives at the Legislature that would require the courts to release more low-level, non-violent arrestees without making them post bail. The bills have not passed, although House Bill 1567 is still being considered by lawmakers this year.

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