Building a new prison is unpopular, but necessary
A nationwide report estimates that Hawaii's prison population will increase significantly by 2011.
WITH Hawaii's prison population expected to jump by 21 percent in the next five years, state lawmakers and Gov. Linda Lingle should confront the prickly issue of building more facilities sooner rather than later.
Continuing to send inmates to mainland detention centers is cheaper in dollars, but more taxing in social costs, which both the Legislature and governor acknowledge.
A study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts' Public Safety Performance Project estimates that the number of prisoners Hawaii will have to find space for in its already-crammed facilities will grow by about 1,100 by the year 2011.
More than 2,100 prisoners are housed in various correctional centers in Arizona, Oklahoma and other states, chiefly because it's cheaper -- $43 to $52 a day as opposed to $102 a day for keeping them in the islands.
The Pew report says the increase in prisoners will result from rising crime as Hawaii becomes more urbanized and because of laws that require longer sentences. For example, the state last year adopted a three-strikes law that locks away violent repeat offenders for 30 years or for life.
The law was criticized as a pre-election, get-tough measure that did not calculate in the cost of incarcerating more criminals for longer periods of time, but defended as necessary to keep recidivists off the streets.
In signing the bill, the governor said she was responding to community concern. Community concern was also the reason she gave when she abandoned a goal from her first term to build two new prisons for inmates being sent away.
Lingle said attempts to find sites were thwarted by NIMBY attitudes. "People simply don't want one in their community," the governor said.
Instead, she said she would focus on programs that help nonviolent criminals re-enter society and refurbish current facilities.
That may not be enough. California, which in the late 1970s directed its efforts toward such programs, now finds its prison population swelling, largely due to mandatory sentencing laws.
Exporting prisoners, especially from Hawaii to the mainland, places great physical and social hurdles between prisoners and their families. Without emotional support and contact, prisoners have a reduced chance of returning to society. In fact, 90 percent of mainland-housed prisoners return to a life of crime compared to a 47 to 57 percent recidivism rate for those held here.
While the governor is correct in that no community would welcome a prison in its midst, she and lawmakers were elected to make the tough, unpopular decisions. They cannot turn a blind eye to a problem that won't go away.