Ka Wai Ola
Photo: David Ige with Act 179 Supporters
A broad coalition collaborated on Act 179’s passage. Photo: Kawena Lei Caravalho-Mattos

By Kamaile Maldanado

On July 2, 2019, Governor Ige signed into law the broadest criminal justice reform measure Hawai‘i has seen in recent history. Realizing years of work by experts and stakeholders, including OHA, Act 179 puts our corrections system on a path towards a more rehabilitative and therapeutic model – one that can reduce our incarcerated population, keep offenders from re-offending, and address the ever-increasing human and financial costs of our jails and prisons.

Hawai‘i has not escaped the mass incarceration phenomenon that has swept the United States over recent decades. Since the 1970s, Hawai‘i’s jail and prison populations have skyrocketed, increasing by 670%, and forcing Hawai‘i to now house over 20% of its prisoners in private, for-profit prisons on the continent.

The costs of our ever-increasing incarceration rates are inexcusably high. Hawai‘i taxpayers spend over $66,000 per inmate or over $220 million annually on corrections costs. Inmates share cells often at double their intended capacity; inmate deaths and sexual assaults are of increasing concern; and limited rehabilitation and reintegration programs result in high recidivism rates and little prospects for pa‘ahao and their families even after their sentences have been served. And these burdens rest most heavily on Native Hawaiians, who are overrepresented in our incarcerated population and at all stages in our criminal justice system.

To address these costs, the legislature created two task forces, both with OHA representation, to examine our criminal justice system and recommend reforms. After several years of work, in late 2018, the HCR85 Task Force on Prison Reform and the HCR134 Task Force on Pretrial Reform submitted their reports to the legislature; this year, several measures were introduced to implement the task forces’ recommendations. After a draining session full of inspired passion and careful compromise, many of these measures coalesced into a single, omnibus vehicle, HB1552. Signed into law as Act 179, this measure will now bring several key changes to Hawai‘i’s criminal justice system, including:

  • Establishing an Oversight Commission: A new five-member commission, including an OHA appointee, will provide oversight over the Hawai‘i State Department of Public Safety and help transition its corrections approach from a punitive model to a more rehabilitative, therapeutic and cost-effective one.
  • Requiring fairer bail determinations: Bail reports must include more comprehensive information, and defendants’ ability to pay must be considered in setting bail amounts.
  • Making our pretrial system more efficient: The bail process must follow a shorter timeframe, and reduce unnecessary burdens on defendants and the state.
  • Collecting better data to develop stronger policies: A new Statewide Criminal Pretrial Justice Data system will offer better measures of our pretrial system, while a new Criminal Justice Research Institute will continue examining all aspects of our criminal justice system to inform future potential reforms.

While Act 179 does not include all of the recommendations developed by Hawai‘i’s leading experts, it nonetheless represents a historic and much-needed step to reform our jails and prisons, and address the ever-growing costs of our correctional institutions on Hawai‘i’s taxpayers, pa‘ahao and communities.

See the recent criminal justice reform task force reports at www.oha.org/criminaljustice.