If Hawaii abruptly reduced the number of people locked up in its prisons and jails, would the local crime rates then spike as more criminals ran free? That debate has been going on for years, and was mostly theoretical — until the pandemic hit.

Data made public recently by the state Department of Public Safety shows Hawaii reduced its inmate populations in 2020 by more than most people realized at the time, and state crime statistics show Honolulu’s crime rates actually dropped that year.

In fact, Honolulu’s “index” crime rate for 2020 — which is used to measure overall crime trends here — dropped to its lowest level since the state began tracking that data in 1975.

Criminal justice reformers have long argued Hawaii locks up more people each year than is necessary to protect public safety, and they say the 2020 data proves that point. If nothing else, critics of the Hawaii system say the 2020 statistics show the relationship between locking people up and reducing crime is — at best — shaky.

Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative, said the per capita incarceration rate in Hawaii is higher than the rates of most nations other than the United States. The state’s per capita incarceration rate is much higher than the United Kingdom, Spain and Australia, and more than four times the rate of Canada, she said.

“That’s insane. I think what people should be getting out of these current trends in a year when the incarceration was significantly reduced is, you can have way less incarceration and not see an increase in crime,” she said.

OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center.
The Oahu Community Correctional Center, the state’s largest jail, saw hundreds of Covid cases. The pandemic and the response to it created a situation in which the number of jail inmates in Hawaii suddenly dropped, and so did the Honolulu crime rate. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Studies have shown that other strategies such as investing in community health care, improving public schools, spending money on summer programs for youths, cleaning up parks to make them more usable and providing affordable housing “can and do frequently reduce crime rates,” Bertram said.

“It should encourage people who are in favor of reforming this failed system of mass incarceration to see that with lower incarceration numbers, you actually see a decrease in crime,” Bertram said of the Hawaii data.

But Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm cautions it is difficult to draw conclusions about what happened in 2020 because it was such a unique year for both crime and punishment.

As the pandemic emerged as a major threat in 2020, the state Supreme Court and other agencies deliberately reduced the flow of prisoners into the correctional system in an effort to reduce overcrowding and slow the spread of Covid-19 inside.

Hawaii admitted an average of more than 1,037 prisoners per month to the state correctional system in 2019, but prisoner intake plummeted during 2020. According to data provided last month by the state Department of Public Safety, average monthly admissions into the system dropped to just 635 in 2020.

Those efforts were particularly successful in lowering the populations at the state’s four chronically overcrowded jails, which are largely populated by prisoners awaiting trial or serving sentences of a year or less for less serious crimes.

The combined inmate population in the state’s jails on Oahu, Maui, Big Island and Kauai dropped from 2,072 at the end of 2019 to 1,646 at the end of 2020, a decline of nearly 21%.

State crime data, meanwhile, shows Honolulu’s reported crime rates dropped at the same time. According to data from the state Attorney General’s Office, the total number of “index crimes” reported in Honolulu decreased by nearly 14%, while violent crimes dropped by 10.7%. Murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and theft all declined.

Kauai saw an even more dramatic reduction in its crime rates in 2020, and Maui County also had a reduction. Hawaii island saw a small increase in overall index crimes, but had a significant 68% increase in reports of violent crimes.

The decision to reduce the populations in state jails in 2020 — largely by releasing petty offenders without requiring them to post bail — aroused considerable controversy, particularly among Hawaii’s prosecutors.

In August 2020, then-Acting Honolulu Prosecutor Dwight Nadamoto filed a brief with the state Supreme Court warning of “a tremendous public health and safety risk presented by the wholesale release of hundreds of inmates into the community without proper vetting and assurances that inmates will not exacerbate the greatest public health crisis in our lifetimes and unleash additional crime into the community.”

Nadamoto argued his earlier warnings against the court’s efforts to reduce the jail population “have proven to be well-founded, as demonstrated by the dozens of inmates who have been released pursuant to COVID-19, only to be re-arrested shortly thereafter.”

MPD Chief Swearing in
Maui police at a swearing-in ceremony for the Maui police chief. Maui’s crime rates declined in 2020 along with those of Oahu and Kauai, while the Big Island saw a significant increase in violent crime. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021

“While some of these re-arrests were because of technical violations and failures to abide by their conditions of release, others have committed new and serious crimes that might have been preventable with greater scrutiny of potential inmate releases,” Nadamoto wrote in his filing with the court.

Alm also argued against Covid-related releases later that year, and in spring of 2021 he publicly flagged a case in which an inmate was repeatedly released only to reoffend by allegedly groping women downtown. The Supreme Court essentially discontinued its pandemic-related efforts to expedite inmate releases in a ruling in the fall of 2021.

Alm said in a recent interview it is interesting to try to sort through what the incarceration and crime statistics during the pandemic might mean, but he believes “crime dropped because the state kind of ground to a halt in many ways for a while.”

“Back then my sense of why crime dropped was because for a lot of that time businesses were closed, so opportunities for shoplifting were not there, and people were at home a lot … so that would lead people to have fewer burglaries,” he said.

Theft offenses in particular helped drive the overall reduction in Honolulu crime statistics in 2020, Alm said, and he noted Honolulu police statistics show theft, auto theft and burglary cases increased again in 2021 as the state economy recovered and the tourists returned.

Still, Alm said the state could reduce the number of people in jail, and “definitely could do some things to supervise people better and let more people out pretrial.” He cited the example of HOPE Probation, a program he pioneered for drug offenders and high-risk inmates that features “high-intensity supervision” and swift punishment for probation violators.

The debate over the number of people who need to be held in jail has become more urgent in recent years as the state contemplates building a new facility to replace the aging and inefficient Oahu Community Correctional Center. OCCC is the state’s largest jail.

It cost Hawaii taxpayers $238 per day to hold an inmate in a Hawaii prison or jail in the year that ended June 30, 2021, and that cost increases each year. Current plans call for the new jail to be larger than OCCC, and the official cost estimate for that project is $525 million. However, some skeptics predict the jail project will end up costing far more.

Carrie Ann Shirota, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, said some research has found that increases in incarceration rates have resulted in small reductions in crime rates, but others found the opposite — that crime rates can actually increase as jurisdictions lock up more people.

Jailing more people can increase crime in some cases by destabilizing families and neighborhoods, and by removing offenders from the stabilizing influences of their jobs and families, Shirota said. At the same time, prison and jail inmates typically do not get the help many of them need for drug addiction or mental illness.

“It’s sort of this paradox. We think that by locking up more people, crime rates are going to go down … but that’s not always true,” she said.

Demonstrators hold signs fronting the OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Protesters line up at OCCC. As the state plans to build a new jail, the public debate over how many people need to be locked up has become more urgent. Critics of the existing system say the state should place more people in drug treatment and mental health programs instead of jail. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

She said media coverage of sensational crimes tends to steer the public to the conclusion that locking up more people will lead to safer communities, but “that actually has the opposite effect from what the community wants, needs and deserves.”

She cited research by The Sentencing Project that found that as New Jersey, New York and California reduced their incarcerated populations by amounts ranging from 23% to 26% in the years prior to 2012, those states saw their crime rates drop more rapidly than states that were more punitive.

“If we spend more of the funding on known factors to decrease crime rates — job opportunities, livable wages, graduation rates, health care, and particularly mental health, housing — that are known to address the root causes of crime, that makes communities safer,” Shirota said.

She also argues for diverting more people who commit crimes into community programs instead of jail, pointing out community mental health and drug treatment programs are far less expensive than jail.

“We have no wait list to get into our jails, but we have wait lists to get into drug treatment centers, even when people are ready and willing to get services, and we need to absolutely change that,” she said. “Going to jail or prison should be the last resort. It’s the most expensive, and least effective.”

Bertram said the crime rate in 2020 may have been reduced because people were confined in their homes, but some believe that confinement led to an increase in domestic violence. She also points out that many people were financially desperate during the pandemic.

“The upshot is that it’s extremely complicated,” she said.

“The fact that despite a lower incarcerated population Hawaii saw a decreased crime rate in 2020 should make people think about what actually causes crime, and the complicated factors that drive crime trends, because it’s not as simple as incarceration being a deterrent, or removing people from society who would otherwise be out committing crimes,” she said.

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