Good intentions will not be enough with inmate bill
THE TOP priority for the Department of Public Safety is the well-being and safety of our inmates, staff and the people of Hawaii. We take this responsibility seriously, and our employees work hard every day to ensure public safety. However, Senate Bill 932 could put our facilities and the public in harm's way.
We supported the intent of SB 932 to bring inmates back to Hawaii when they are nearing release so they can participate in re-entry programs appropriate for our culture and communities. However, we raised concerns that any mandated return of inmates was unrealistic. We knew to do so much with so many inmates in such a short time frame would greatly affect our budget and facilities in Hawaii.
Gov. Linda Lingle asked the Legislature for a more realistic time line because she knew the constraints our department faces. This law took effect retroactively, on July 1, 2007, putting the state and our department in an essentially impossible position.
This bill might require the department to return inmates from the mainland and possibly return in-state inmates to their respective counties at least one year prior to their parole or release date to participate in re-entry programs. But the bill did not take into account whether Hawaii would have adequate facilities to safely house them or consider the inmate's completion of rehabilitation programs.
To comply, our department might have to return about 582 felons from the mainland and plan for the transfer of an additional 179 prisoners back to Hawaii before Dec. 31, 2008. Plus, we could be required to relocate 123 inmates within the state, and anticipate the possible transfer and potential release of more than 400 parole violators between now and June 30, 2008.
This is a grave concern. We do not have the space to accommodate such a drastic increase in the inmate population at our existing facilities. We also do not have the funding to relocate and provide in-state programs for these inmates. And we are worried about the release of felons into the community.
This law ultimately might compromise the safety of the community, endanger the well-being of inmates and staff, and could expose the state to costly litigation. On top of that, the funding in this measure is extremely limited.
As a result, the department must determine how this law is going to affect our current funding and budget. Finding housing will be crucial. We do not want to simply warehouse prisoners, so another concern is whether we will be able to provide a continuum of programs and services that were available to the inmates on the mainland.
Unfortunately, this law might result in the premature release of prisoners back into our communities before they have completed their rehabilitation programs.
The state is committed to building a facility in Puunene, Maui, that will emphasize reintegration. The project plans to use about $58 million to build the first two phases of a jail, and could eventually house about 800 inmates with completion of the third phase. We also have worked closely with the Department of Justice to secure $13 million in federal funds for the project.
Our department also has been developing partnerships with both private and nonprofit organizations that provide inmates with the type of assistance and attention needed to make a successful transition back into society.
We will consult with the attorney general to determine exactly what the new law requires. And we will proceed with the utmost concern for public safety, which includes inmates, staff and the community we are entrusted to serve.
Clayton Frank is interim director of the state Department of Public Safety.