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Hawaii Unveils Plan to Reduce Prison Population

The Council on State Governments Justice Center, a non-profit group, has proposed changes to Hawaii’s criminal justice system to help speed the release of incarcerated offenders from Hawaii’s jails and prisons.  

The organization worked for the seven months with Hawaii prison officials, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to prepare the twenty page report titled Justice Reinvestment in Hawaii.   You can read the entire report here.

Circuit Judge Steve Alm, co-chairman of the group that authored the report, said, “There’s no question we have to be tough on crime but at the same time, there’s no reason we can’t be smart on crime.”

According to the report, the data shows that the crime rate and the number of felony criminal cases have declined since 2006.  During the same time period, the study also reports that the prison population has dropped 14 percent.  However, as of June 30, 2011, the inmate population has actually increased 48 percent to a total of 2,191 detainees due to pre-trial detainees, probation violators and misdemeanor offenders.   

The report found lengthy delays in the processing of pretrial detainees who were eventually found eligible for release on bail, on their own recognizance or under some form of supervision.

The data also found a sharp increase in the number of probation violators held in jail.  In 2006, there were 791 violations but by 2011 that number increased by 147 percent to 1,956.  This increase in probation violations has been attributed to Judge Alms, HOPE probation program in which closely supervised, high-risk probationers were sent to jail for a brief stay if they violated the rules of supervision.  

The report also states that Hawaii has one of the longest probation sentences for low-risk felony offenders.  These sentences are typically five years, whereas Mainland probation sentences for the same offenses are less than three years.

One recommendation in the report is to cap probation sentences for the least serious felony offenses at three years. However, this type of change would require legislative approval.

A second recommendation which requires a statutory change, would give judges more flexibility in the sentencing of second-time felony drug possession offenders.  Current law requires prison time, but the study recommended allowing judges the option of probation.

The reports states, “Incarceration of this population leads to higher recidivism rates. Therefore, probation (as well as prison) shall be an option.”

The third recommendation is to raise the monetary threshold for a felony theft charge from $300 to $750.  Many states, such as Texas, set the felony cut-off level at $1,000 or higher.

And lastly, the study recommends changes to Hawaii’s parole system, noting that most inmates are completing their entire prison sentence instead of being released early with state supervision.  

Governor Neil Abercrombie said in an afternoon press conference that he found the study “incredibly productive” and will be introducing legislation this year based on its recommendations.  He will recommend both statutory changes as well as budget appropriations.  The report states the recommended change could cost $7 million to implement but would save the state $9.8 million in just one year.

Opposition to the report’s findings have been voiced.  Honolulu’s Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro stated  the focus should be on public safety, not how to get the incarcerated out of prison to reduce overcrowding.  “That shouldn’t be the focus. The focus should always be, how do we maintain public safety?”  

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