Tally of returning prisoners increases
State officials worry about space issues for potential isle inmates
State prison officials have sharply raised their estimate of the number of mainland prisoners who may have to return to comply with a new law.
The bill, Senate Bill 932, had been vetoed by Gov. Linda Lingle, who said it was too difficult to return prisoners, as mandated, with a year or less before parole.
After the Legislature overrode the veto, Lingle said Hawaii jails and prisons are already overcrowded and that is why inmates are kept in mainland institutions.
State officials worry that to comply strictly with the new state law might force them to release or furlough prisoners here to make room for returning inmates now in mainland facilities.
The new figures released by Clayton Frank, interim public safety director, show 582 prisoners and not the 308 that had previously been reported.
Added to that, Frank said, could be an additional 179 to 185 inmates that are not, but could be, considered for parole. Further, there are 400 parole violators imprisoned on the mainland who could be up for parole within a year.
Frank warned that the prisoners who are up for parole are not guaranteed that outcome.
"It doesn't mean the (Hawaii) Paroling Authority will release you. They may say you haven't completed a program, or you have an escape charge or other problems," Frank said.
Frank said the state recently had to send 250 more inmates to the mainland because one of the four modules at the Halawa prison had to be closed for repairs to the fire sprinkler system.
Returning prisoners to Hawaii will mean including them in a system that is already overcrowded.
"If it becomes worse and worse and the overcrowded conditions become unbearable, I have no alternative except to look at releasing people on furlough ... but I am also trying to ensure the public safety," Frank said.
State officials are looking at that section to see whether the law is really binding. The new law says that although prisoners are to be returned, if the state does not return prisoners, it must file a report with the Legislature explaining its inability to comply.
"The committee report with the bill says the bill was changed to make it discretionary and not mandatory," Attorney General Mark Bennett said.
The committee report, Bennett said, gives lawyers a sense of the "legislative intent" behind the law.
Bennett said his office will prepare an opinion on whether the law is mandatory.
Sen. Will Espero, Public Safety Committee chairman, who helped write the bill, said the Legislature's intent was to force the state to start preparing rehabilitation plans for inmates who will soon be leaving prison.
"The legislative intent is they would only come home if there is space and the programs," Espero (D, Ewa-Honouliuli-Ewa Beach) said. "But what we are looking at is that because the administration hasn't come up with a re-entry program, we are forcing the issue."
The state, Espero said, has not worked fast enough or hard enough to prepare for the rehabilitation of the jailed felons.
"For the administration simply to say they don't have space is not satisfactory," Espero said.
If the bill is not clear or is ambiguous, Espero said, next year the Legislature "can fine-tune it."