An administration bill to divert nonviolent, first-time offenders to drug treatment programs instead of sending them to prison is expected to have the added benefit of helping to ease overcrowding at Hawaii's prisons.
Drug offender bill
ready to sign
Cayetano will approve the bill
that will send nonviolent offenders
to treatment programs
By Bruce Dunford
The problem of overcrowding has gotten to the point where officials are looking at early release for as many as 300 low-risk inmates to avoid possible prisoner lawsuits stemming from the crowded conditions.
Gov. Ben Cayetano, who was to sign the bill into law today, earlier applauded lawmakers for passing the measure.
"We do not believe that just putting someone in jail is the solution to their drug problems," Cayetano said. "More often than not, without treatment a person will slip back into drug use.
"It is a serious issue that has a negative ripple effect in the community and on our economy."
Ten House Republicans voted against the bill, including Minority Leader Galen Fox, who argued it would affect few cases, would remove the Drug Court judge's "hammer in getting drug offenders to shape up to avoid going to prison," and let some previously violent offenders avoid prison if it has been five years or more since their violent act.
"Almost all first-time drug offenders are given probation and aren't sent to prison if they are really nonviolent first-time offenders," Fox (R, Waikiki-Ala Wai) said yesterday.
Proponents of the measure, including retired Circuit Judge Masato Doi, told lawmakers drug treatment programs cost half the amount it costs to keep someone in prison.
Lawmakers, who approved $2.2 million to pay for the drug treatment programs for about 200 offenders identified as eligible, pointed to successful programs in Arizona and California and said Hawaii "requires a major shift in philosophy to deal with the needs of drug offenders."
Groups backing the measure included the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii and the Community Alliance on Prisons, which ran television ads while lawmakers were considering the legislation.
The ads feature Ito and Dancetta Feary Kamai, the sister of well-known Hawaii entertainer Mackey Feary, a repeat drug offender who died in prison three years ago.
Kamai said her brother suffered from depression and turned to both legal and illegal drugs. He was not a bad person but was sick and needed help, she said.
Cayetano also is scheduled to sign into law a measure using surcharges on speeding, drunken driving and seat-belt violations to support a new state program to help people disabled by brain or spine injuries.
According to the measure, each year, one in every 148 people will survive a neurotrauma injury, with half of those experiencing short-term disability and 5 percent sustaining lifelong debilitating losses of mental or physical functions.
The Hawaii Health Systems Corp., which operates the state's community hospitals, estimates that 1,200 people are treated annually in Hawaii for brain or spinal injuries.
Based on the national average, that means about 60 patients in Hawaii are added each year to the number needing long-term care and rehabilitation.
Cayetano vetoed a similar bill two years ago because of the attorney general's concern it violated prohibitions against using mandatory fees from driver's licensing to support a trust fund, so the new bill sets up a special state fund supported by traffic violations.
State of Hawaii
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