BY JIM DOOLEY – Proposed changes to Hawaii’s criminal justice system that would speed the release of numerous accused and convicted criminals from jails and prisons were outlined today at the state Capitol.
“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,” said Circuit Judge Steve Alm, co-chairman of the group that authored the recommendations.
The report was prepared by a non-profit, non-partisan group, the Council on State Governments Justice Center, that worked for the past seven months with Hawaii prison officials, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys. The full report is available here:
Its data showed that Hawaii’s crime rate and felony criminal cases have declined since 2006 and the prison population has also dropped 14 per cent during that same period.
But the jail population – made up of pre-trial detainees, probation violators and misdemeanor offenders — has actually increased 48 per cent to a total of 2,191 detainees as of June 30, 2011.
The report, called Justice Reinvestment in Hawaii, 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.
Other jurisdictions around the country release pre-trial defendants much more quickly and efficiently, the report found.
Data released earlier by the analysts also found a sharp increase in the number of probation violators held in jail here. In 2006, there were 791 such admissions but they increased last year by 147 per cent to 1,956. The number of jailed probation violators on any given day in 2006 was 58 but by June 2011, that number had risen to 350 – a rise of more than 500 per cent.
The State Governments Justice Center data indicated that good deal of that growth was attributable to Judge Alm’s HOPE probation program, in which closely supervised, high-risk probationers are sent to jail for brief stays if they violate their rules of supervision.
Data indicate that as of June 2011, 50 to 60 per cent of jailed probationers – 175 to 210 inmates — were in the HOPE program.
But the analysts noted that the HOPE program has yielded striking overall reductions in criminal recidivism rates for probationers, meaning fewer of them commit new crimes and are sent to prison for much longer and more expensive terms of incarceration.
The report also noted that Hawaii has some of the longest probation sentences for felony offenders at low risk of re-offending. Those sentences are almost always five years, whereas Mainland probation sentences for the same offenses are for three years or less.
One of the study’s recommendations was to cap probation sentences for the least serious felony offenses at three years. Such a change would require legislative approval.
Another recommendation requiring statutory change would give judges more flexibility in the sentencing of second-time felony drug possession offenders. The law now requires prison time, but the study recommended allowing judges the option of probation.
“Incarceration of this population leads to higher recidivism rates. Therefore, probation (as well as prison) shall be an option,” the report said.
A third recommendation would raise the monetary threshold for a felony theft charge from the current level of $300 to $750.
Many states, including tough-on-crime locales such as Texas, set the felony cut-off level at $1,000 or higher.
The study also recommended changes to Hawaii’s parole system, noting that increasing numbers of prison inmates are “maxing out” (serving their full terms of incarceration” and then are released without any supervision. Many of these felons are at high risk to commit new crimes.
Methods must be found to ensure that prison inmates be supervised after they are released in order to assist them in transitioning back into society and to ensure that the victims of their crimes are notified and made safe, the report said.
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 said his administration will recommend both statutory changes as well as budget appropriations.
The study said that recommended changes would cost some $7 million to implement but would save the state $9.8 million in expenses in just one year.
The number of Hawaii inmates now incarcerated on the Mainland would be reduced in five years from 1,750 to “fewer than 600,” the study said.
Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro expressed reservations about some of the study’s recommendations.
“The focus should be on public safety,” Kaneshiro said.
“There’s talk about the prison is overcrowded, we have an increase in (jail) population, how can we look at getting guys out,” Kaneshiro said.
“That shouldn’t be the focus. The focus should always be, how do we maintain public safety?” said Kaneshiro.