New Prison Oversight Commission Is Off To A Slow Start
Yoohyun Jung -
The following report is from our partners Civil Beat.
The Hawaii legislature created a prisons oversight commission this year to help fix the broken corrections system and head toward a therapeutic model, but not much has happened since the governor gave his stamp of approval in July.
Only two of the five members have been appointed, and a full-time director, as required by statute, has not yet been hired. A spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, which houses the commission, said the panel currently has no plans for its first meeting.
There’s no question that Hawaii’s prisons are overcrowded, faltering and unsustainable. A detailed prison reform task force report submitted to the Legislature earlier this year pointed out numerous shortcomings, including over representation of Native Hawaiians in jails and prisons and how some facilities do not meet minimum constitutional standards.
To combat these problems, the task force came up with a number of recommendations. Among them was for the state to establish an independent oversight body for the correctional system that would serve as a watchdog over the entire operation.
The Legislature delivered. In the 2019 session, it passed House Bill 1552, which became Act 179. The act, signed into law by Gov. David Ige on July 2, established the five-member, independent Correctional Systems Oversight Commission, among other criminal justice reform measures.
The commission would, first and foremost, investigate complaints at Hawaii’s correctional facilities.
In addition, it would facilitate a “correctional system transition to a rehabilitative and therapeutic model,” Act 179 says.
That’s the key, said Robert Merce, a retired attorney and vice chair of the prison reform task force that produced the report.
“The current punitive system that we have had in place for half a century or more has not produced the outcomes that we want,” he said. “It has not made our communities safer. It’s put too many people behind bars for too long and at too great an expense.”
If implemented as the statute promises, this could be a “paradigm change,” he said. Hawaii could be at the forefront by establishing a rehabilitative prison system, which was a key recommendation by the task force.
Merce said he would like to see the commission get to work as soon as possible.
“They’re sure taking their time,” he said. “What’s happening with everybody else?”