BY JIM DOOLEY –Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro today continued his lonely objections to aspects of Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s plan to amend Hawaii’s
criminal justice in ways that would release more convicted felons from prisons and jails.
Kaneshiro told legislators he’s afraid the proposed legislation could endanger public safety and deny parole and probation officials necessary discretion in performing their work.
Called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, the plan would streamline pretrial bail releases of accused felons, shorten probation terms for certain felonies and limit prison stays for some parole violators.
One portion of the governor’s plan would raise the threshold for a felony theft charge from $300 to $750, greatly reducing the amount of jail or probation terms for those offenses.
Proponents say the $300 level has been unchanged since 1986 and is far below the national average of $750. Even the tough-on-crime state of Texas sets the felony theft threshold at $2,500, advocates say.
The administration says initiating the changes to the system would cost some $7 million in upfront spending, but those expenses would be recovered – and millions more dollars saved – because of reduced prison and jail populations.
Kaneshiro noted that the administration’s bills don’t have budget appropriations written into them and he wondered where the start-up money would come from.
He said he wanted to know how many new parole and probation officers will have to be hired to handle increased workloads.
Department of Public Safety director Jodi Maesaka-Hiarata said she is working with state budget officials to identify sources of funding for the new legislation.
Kaneshiro did support a recommended change to the law which would give state judges more discretion in sentencing second-time drug possession offenders. The law now requires prison time, but the study recommended allowing judges the option of probation.
“I’m not opposed to everything,” Kaneshiro said.
But he cautioned that treatment programs must be expanded and made available to repeat drug possession offenders.
Kaneshiro opposed a proposed change to state law that mandates five-year probation sentences for many lesser felony offenses.
In many localities around the country, three-year terms are standard for such offenses.
Proponents of the three-year maximum note that a probationer is most likely to re-offend within the earliest period of supervision and by the third year, supervision is unnecessary for most offenders.
Kaneshiro arued that probation officers frequently will “bank” such cases, relaxing oversight in the final years of supervision if the probationer has committed no violations.
But the possibility of further action is available to a probation officer if an offender does misbehave in the final stages of his or her sentence, Kaneshiro said.
Judges now can also grant motions for early discharge from probation for model offenders, Kaneshiro said.
The efforts at reforming the system also include a new system to speed preparation of bail eligibility reports for pretrial defendants.
In many cases on Oahu, it can be weeks before the reports are completed and incarcerated defendants are found eligible for release on bail.
Kaneshiro said the new expedited process is now moving so fast that his office has no time to review the reports before a bail hearing occurs.
The lack of review time is now causing his office to move for denial of bail until the reports can be more thoroughly reviewed, the prosecutor said.
Except for Kaneshiro, others testifying were unanimously in favor of the legislation, although the Hawaii Paroling Authority said some fine-tuning may be necessary.