Public safety bills causing an uproar
Lingle, legislators trade blame for lack of prison consensus
STORY SUMMARY »
Public safety issues have Gov. Linda Lingle grappling with top Democratic legislators as millions of dollars hang in the balance.
Lingle is angry that legislators overrode her veto of a bill requiring the return of inmates from mainland prisons if they have less than a year to go before their parole.
The lawmakers, in return, accuse Lingle of ignoring the need for more prison facilities in the isles.
Pedestrian safety is the second sore point, with Lingle saying she will not release money from the state Highway Fund for legislative-driven initiatives.
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Some 300 Hawaii prisoners awaiting parole within a year are the latest sparring point between Republican Gov. Linda Lingle and the Legislature's Democratic leadership.
With a debate that sounds like either a dysfunctional marriage or the intended tug of democracy, Lingle says moving the prisoners back from mainland prisons will create overcrowding and dangerous problems here.
Democrats overrode Lingle's veto of a bill that directs the state to start returning the inmates.
"It is a really irresponsible attitude," Lingle said yesterday in an interview. "I asked them to delay the phasing-in. I think their approach is Draconian. They need to look deeply at themselves and ask why they refuse to collaborate on anything."
Lingle is asking Attorney General Mark Bennett what the new law specifically orders her to do. And interim Public Safety Director Clayton Frank was told to study where he will put the 300 prisoners if they are returned.
"If we have no choice in this matter, then what steps do we need to take?" Lingle said. "The worst-case scenario would be if we have to start releasing prisoners here to make room for the others."
Legislators respond that Lingle is not listening to them.
"I think it is time for the governor to evaluate her position and whether or not she has come to a position that is if it isn't her way, it's the highway," said Senate President Colleen Hanabusa.
"I think this will escalate as long as the governor doesn't want to sit and talk with us," Hanabusa said.
Sen. Will Espero, who wrote the prisoner-return bill, said Lingle should look at it as an opportunity to start fixing the state prison system.
"The administration has been slow or hasn't done enough to address the problems within our prison system," Espero said.
Critics note that Lingle first won the governor's office on a platform that included a pledge to build two new 500-bed prisons. Before running for re-election, Lingle said no new prisons would be built, because no community wanted them. Meanwhile, the state is funding a private prison in Arizona exclusively for Hawaii prisoners at a cost of $50 million.
The Legislature rejected that position, saying Hawaii prisoners should be returned, starting with those who have less than a year left before being paroled.
Relations grew strained this year when Espero's committee and then the Senate refused to confirm Lingle's appointment, Iwalani White, as prison and public safety director.
Espero said the prison bill is a step toward rehabilitation of Hawaii felons.
"It is a very progressive bill, and the administration has done little with the issue and what to do with a burgeoning public safety problem," he said. "Lacking any direction, the Legislature has stepped in."
Lingle said the administration has been focused on smaller community-based rehabilitation programs, but prisons here cannot handle an influx of 300 prisoners.
Hanabusa says Lingle is the one ducking the hard issues by not working on a new prison.
"They have to address it. They simply can't say they can't do it and then go through all eight years without addressing it."