'First Step' Taken to Transform Criminal Justice System

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a former probation officer, was clearly pleased with the passage of two "Justice Reinvestment" bills intended to begin to reform Hawaii's troubled criminal justice system.

On Wednesday he was beaming as he posed for photo after photo with groups involved in the initiative known as "JRI" — a data-driven approach to reducing corrections spending and decreasing crime that was launched to great fanfare last summer.

JIR has involved a wide range of local stakeholders that participated in a system-wide examination of Hawaii's system by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in partnership with the Pew Center on the States and the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance.

While the new laws will not immediately lead to Abercrombie's goal to return local prisoners incarcerated in Arizona prisons (Hawaii has maxed out on bed space), the administration and officials in the judicial and executive branch believe they have taken an important step in that direction.

"The measures before us today — HB 2515 and Senate Bill 2776 — reflect that collaborative effort," said the governor. "With the enactment of these bills, I believe we are taking the next step forward in our commitment for control of our criminal justice system, to exercising resources in a sensible and clear-sighted, clear-headed manner in Hawaii, and strengthening the capacity for people to return to society who have been separated from it."

The two measures will increase the amount of restitution paid to victims from an inmate's account; add staff for victim services in the Prosecuting Attorney offices, the Department of Public Safety (which manages state prisons) and the Crime Victim Compensation Commission; eliminate delays in pre-trial risk assessments; expand the parole board from three to five members; and allocate $1 million to community-based treatment programs.

Asked if Justice Reinvestment could transform Hawaii's criminal justice system, Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald was careful not to overstate things. But he called the bill-signing "an important day."

"This is obviously a first step," he said after the ceremony, which was held in executive chambers at the Capitol. "I think what's important about this is that it was based on an evaluation of data — a very, in my view, level-headed assessment of what results we are intending, in terms of when we take a particular approach, are we getting the most effective result in terms of public safety and in terms of the use of our funds."

Read the full press release from the governor.

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