Prison reform advocates worry key bills won’t survive legislative session

Updated: Feb. 21, 2021 at 6:07 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Prison reform measures, which gained momentum during the COVID pandemic, are now faltering in the state Legislature, advocates said.

They said several bills -- including measures to modernize the criminal justice system and the bail system and one that places a one-year moratorium on the construction of a new Oahu Community Correctional Center at Halawa -- have stalled or have been watered down this session.

“It’s insane and I’m really feeling disheartened because there doesn’t seem to be any push to help people,” said Kat Brady, Hawaii coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons.

Even lawmakers are frustrated.

“I think it’s high time that the state starts reducing mass incarceration or reducing its overcriminalization of poverty,” said state Rep. Sonny Ganaden, vice chair of the House Committee on Corrections.

The advocates said lawmakers are putting a higher priority on building the new jail at the Animal Quarantine Station in Halawa than in reform, which they say will reduce the number of inmates the state would need to house.

Previous state studies said a new jail will cost anywhere between $400 million and $600 million and the state has already spent $10 million in planning costs.

“I can’t believe we’re $10 million into this plan without looking at those very basic things. And I think it’s time we started considering those things,” said attorney Robert Merce.

For example, reforming the bail system will remove hundreds of pre-trial detainees at OCCC, who are stuck there because they can’t afford to pay their bail, added Brady.

“The jail is not about public safety anymore. Jail is really about construction jobs and they are using this to try to grow the economy,” she said.

“When you mix economics with justice, usually that turns out to equal injustice.”

Prison officials said they don’t support a moratorium. Earlier this month, the state recently put out a call for potential developers interested in building the new jail.

Tommy Johnson, Deputy Director for Corrections at the state Department of Public Safety, told members of the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission on Thursday that if advocates want to reform, they should lobby the state Judiciary and the Legislature to provide more prison diversion programs.

“You get more bang for your buck by doing that,” he said.

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