New legislation focuses on isle inmates, families
RE-INTEGRATION, better mental health services and alleviating overcrowding were focus points of the Senate and House Public Safety committees this year. Re-integration prepares inmates to re-join their families and communities after serving time. Improved mental health care helps to avoid recidivism. Both are key to alleviating the costly problem of overcrowded Hawaii prisons.
The Public Safety Committee continuously talked with stakeholders to support and determine the needs of the Department of Public Safety and craft workable solutions to improve the prison system and facilities. A legislative oversight committee will be formed under Senate Bill 932, the Community Safety Act, to provide guidance, direction and support for the DPS. The committee will meet regularly with the DPS and the public.
» Successful re-integration means helping offenders develop skills needed to rejoin their families and communities. SB 932 will create programs to help prisoners acquire these skills. Programs will be geared toward literacy and education; employment and vocational training; substance abuse and mental health; housing and employment; and family issues. A cohesive network of supportive transitional programs will be created.
» Many of Hawaii's prisoners are mentally ill. The federal Department of Justice is monitoring efforts to bring services up to par, having deemed them alarmingly deficient. SB 914 would fund additional mental health staff to bring care up to federally acceptable levels. To give the Legislature the necessary data, SB 914 asks the DPS to report its current mental health services status (including staffing, completion of a training manual, updated record-keeping system and more).
The lack of a forensic (mental health treatment) facility is a deficiency the Legislature is trying to resolve. A forensic facility would enable the DPS to diagnose, treat and stabilize inmates with mental health problems to reduce the likelihood of repeat offenses. A 2006 Department of Justice study found that more than half of all inmates nationwide had mental health problems, which were associated with violence and criminal history. Safety and overcrowding problems at the state hospital often prevent inmates from receiving care. Senate Concurrent Resolution 61 requests that the DPS consider expanding existing forensic facilities or establishing new ones.
» Studies show strong family connections are vital in reducing recidivism. SB 1174 requires and funds parent-child interaction programs to lessen the emotional and social harm children suffer when their parents are incarcerated.
About 44 percent of female offenders and 37 percent of male offenders are Hawaiian. SCR 182 would convene a task force to study the feasibility of a culturally meaningful program for Hawaiian offenders. The program would promote healing by teaching Hawaiian traditions and cultural practices, helping these individuals to develop a cultural and community connection and a purpose in life so they can successfully re-enter society.
The Senate and House Public Safety committees appreciate the efforts of the DPS and others who contributed to crafting these solutions. We will continue to collaborate with the DPS in our joint effort to improve Hawaii's corrections system.
Sen. Will Espero, a Democrat, represents Ewa Beach to Lower Waipahu. He is chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee.