Lawmakers OK controversial strategy to address overcrowding at state jails

Lawmakers OK controversial strategy to address overcrowding at state jails
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A controversial strategy to alleviate overcrowding at state jails will allow officials to release non-violent, low-risk inmates.

Public safety officials say every community correctional center in the state has more inmates than they have room for. Some are at nearly 200 percent capacity. But estimates to build a new jail hover around $600 million.

In an attempt to save money and relieve overcrowding, lawmakers recently passed a bill to release inmates who've been accused or convicted of misdemeanor crimes.

The bill impacts state jails, not prisons where convicted inmates are locked up.

Exclusions would prevent any violent misdemeanor offenders from being considered, and Department of Public Safety officials say they plan to implement even more restrictive rules prohibiting the release of inmates who are homeless or suffering from severe medical or mental health issues.

DPS Director Nolan Espinda says the measure is one part of a three-prong approach that involves long-term solutions, like building additional infrastructure and penal code reform that would limit the number of people sent to jail to begin with.

In the meantime, Espinda says something needs to be done immediately to address overcrowding in jails because current conditions are putting state taxpayers at risk of being sued.

"Our community correctional centers operate anywhere from 145 percent to 165 percent capacity. What that means is we have people sleeping on the floor with their heads next to the toilet every single day," Espinda said.

Some have criticized the bill, saying lawmakers should have instead funded the construction for more community correctional centers.

But lawmakers argue it doesn't make sense to build new facilities when the majority of people who are in jail are awaiting trial.

"The courts are putting all these folks in the prison setting, but these folks are not convicted," House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia
Luke said. "Some of these folks may not end up in jail, but we are putting them in jail and then increasing the capacity of the jails to house these folks -- many of whom are homeless and who are indigent and who cannot make bail."

Opponents of the bill have referred to it as a "get out of jail free card" -- and say reducing the state's 50 percent repeat offender rate is the real key.

"Imagine if recidivism went down, the prisons would be back open and probably have vacant beds -- and to me, that's really the shame. We're not doing what we're supposed to be doing. Recidivism is the key, not getting out of jail free," said state Rep. Gene Ward, (R-Hawaii Kai, Kalama Valley).

In addition to the penal code review that takes places every 10 years, legislators say it's time to start looking at alternatives to incarceration, like round-the-clock electronic monitoring or home detention.

"It's possible that we wouldn't have to spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars on a new facility -- but rather spend money on re-entry and re-habilitation center that helps these inmates move on with their lives," said state Sen. Will Espero, whose district includes Ewa Beach and Ocean Pointe.

DPS officials say for years the public has questioned whether people who are not necessarily a threat to society have inappropriately been sent to jail. 
 
"This is the first tangible measure that we'll have of exactly what kind of people we do have locked up and whether or not they need incarceration,"
said Espinda. 
 
The bill now heads to the governor's desk. If it is approved, it will go into effect July 1. It does require DPS to provide a 48-hour notice to the prosecutor's office so that they can contact any victims or witnesses who may be impacted.

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