Democratic and Republican candidates for governor described conditions in Hawaii’s correctional system as “deplorable” at a Sunday forum on criminal justice issues, and Democrats Kai Kahele and Vicky Cayetano both expressed interest in using the governor’s clemency powers to arrange for the release of certain types of inmates.

Cayetano, a businesswoman and former first lady of Hawaii, said she wants to focus on rehabilitation and reducing recidivism, and questioned whether people serving time solely for drug offenses even belong in state prisons and jails.

“I don’t think any one disputes that the current system is broken,” Cayetano said. “One of the first things I would do as governor is look at the people who are incarcerated, and for those, for example, who had simple possession of a drug, do they need to be incarcerated?”

Criminal justice forum
Republican candidate for governor Gary Cordery, left, answers a question at the forum on criminal justice issues. Democrats Kai Kahele, center, and Vicky Cayetano said they are open to expanded use of the governor’s clemency powers. Screenshot/2022

“We need to look at what puts people into the prison system. We need to look at justice reform in order to address that,” she said.

She said she would support “broad based clemency” if there is community input, and if the Legislature and governor can come to agreement on the guiding principles for expanded use of clemency.

Kahele, a U.S. congressman who represents the neighbor islands and rural Oahu, said he would “immediately explore clemency opportunities” for prison inmates who were sentenced under older, more punitive laws than the statutes now in place in Hawaii.

He added: “We could look at individuals who are incarcerated for any type of technical issues or parole violations. We could look at kupuna, older incarcerated individuals, and the opportunities for clemency for them.”

Vicky Cayetano speaks at a press conference held near Nuuanu Elementary School. Cayetano proposed her priorities of her campaign.
Vicky Cayetano says the state needs to look at justice reform. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Kahele condemned existing conditions in Hawaii’s overcrowded jails as “a total disaster, I don’t know how else to describe it. Maui, Hilo, it has to be addressed.” He also said the state needs to “bring home” the 1,077 inmates now serving sentences in a privately run prison in Arizona.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, the apparent front runner in the Democratic primary, did not attend the forum.

Kahele revealed to listeners at the Sunday forum hosted by the ACLU Hawaii and the nonprofit ‘Ekolu Mea Nui that he had his own run-ins with the criminal justice system as a youth.

“Most people may not know this, I’ll be honest, I was a juvenile delinquent in high school,” Kahele said. “Kicked out of Waiakea High School, arrested at 16 years old, went to Olomana Boy’s Home, most people don’t know that. Hundreds of hours of community service, thousands of dollars in restitution to the people I affected, arrested at 18 years old for assault.

“I was one mistake away from going into this system,” he said. “The fact that I’m sitting here right now as a Native Hawaiian 30 years later, a sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives, running for governor, is unreal.”

He said his experiences as someone “who has walked in different worlds” can bring people hope, including young Hawaiians in the public school system.

Republican Honolulu City Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi said her experiences launching a parenting program for women inmates on Oahu demonstrated that “clemency definitely needs to be an option to be discussed.”

“I met with many women who had a minor infraction that just turned into years of being separated from their families, and the longer they’re separated, and the longer they’re institutionalized, the harder it is for them to come back and regain their place in society,” she said.

Republican Heidi Tsuneyoshi said clemency “needs to be an option to be discussed.” Screenshot/2022

GOP candidate Gary Cordery, a small businessman, said he has hired former inmates and would be willing to use the governor’s clemency powers to correct any miscarriages of justice on a case-by-case basis. But he added that “those who’ve been violated by crime, they cannot be taken for granted.”

The candidates also discussed efforts to eliminate cash bail for people who have been arrested for non-violent offenses, a proposal that was in a controversial bill that Gov. David Ige vetoed last week. Supporters of the bill say the current system penalized poor and homeless people who cannot afford bail.

Cordery rejected that idea, saying that Hawaii business owners are being victimized by thieves. Eliminating cash bail “actually removes the consequences for a small-dollar crime, up to $1,000,” he said, adding that “the idea of removing any kind of consequence for bad behavior in our society leads to more bad behavior. It does not restrain unlawful behavior.”

Tsuneyoshi said she supported Ige’s veto of the bill “because our communities definitely need to feel a sense of security.” But she said she is interested in a solution that involves more social service programs that can help people who are stuck in jail for minor crimes simply because they cannot afford bail.

Cayetano said she could support release without bail for a first offense, “but for repeat offenders, I’m not sure how you can support that because they can’t make the bail.” She also expressed concern for local businesses that over and over are victims of theft.

Kahele said he is open to bail reform, but said the state needs a strong governor who can work with the Legislature to resolve the issue. He noted that even the introducer of the bail bill this year asked that it be vetoed.

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