Hawaii Prison Population Drops 5 Percent

Honolulu Civil Beat

By Chad Blair

Hawaii's prison population has dropped 5 percent since July 2012, a figure that includes a 12 percent reduction in prisoners housed in Arizona.

That's because, officials say, the state's criminal justice system has implemented a risk assessment program for offenders within three days of their admission, increased the number of re-paroles and taken steps toward a statewide data collection program to track offenders as they move through the system.

Credit all that to "justice reinvestment," a data-driven approach to cutting corrections spending and directing the savings toward decreasing recidivism and increasing public safety.

The progress report was delivered Thursday to the public safety committees of the state Senate and House of Representatives.

"We are on the right path, we've got a ways to go, but there is light at the end of the tunnel," said Will Espero, chairman of Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs. Not 'Business As Usual'

Thursday's update came from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership association of officials. Justice reinvestment —"JRI" — in Hawaii is supported by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pew Center on the States.

The Justice Center's analysis of Hawaii's criminal justice system found that, while crime, arrests and felony convictions had declined from 2000 to 2011, the jail and prison population rose 18 percent.

That's because more people were being denied parole, prisoners were being held longer, there was a lack of discretion in sentencing and there were longer probation terms.

Presented with the data, the Hawaii Legislature passed legislation in 2012 based on JRI recommendations. The goal of freeing up prison space and saving money fit with Gov. Neil Abercrombie's desire to bring Hawaii's Arizona prisoners back home.

As of 2011, almost one-third of Hawaii's 6,073 inmates were imprisoned on the mainland; the figure has since dropped to around 1,700, with nearly 200 inmates having returned since July 2012.

As of this January, Hawaii's prison population stood at 5,738. Despite the 5 percent drop, however, the average prison population still exceeds the state's capacity (3,327) by 80 percent.

Still, Hawaii's prisoner numbers are "headed in the right direction," said Marshall Clement, director of the Justice Center's state initiative on JRI. He expressed hope that Hawaii would continue in that direction and not slip back to a "business as usual" pattern.

Clement was particularly excited about the development of a database system to keep track of people moving through the criminal justice system, from arrest to parole. He said it could serve as a national model.

There is more work to be done, however, including hiring staff to staff to run the JRI-recommended programs. Espero said the necessary financing is part of the state budget, which won't be settled until next month. Also part of the budget is an appropriation to reopen Kulani prison near Hilo.

Ted Sakai, director of the state's Department of Public Safety, said he believed his staff had "gotten the message" that JRI is the direction the governor and the Legislature wants to head in.