Wednesday, February 3, 1999

Hawaii State Seal

Habitual offender
bill delayed

The proposed law
could inadvertently affect the
homeless and mentally ill,
lawmakers are told

Legislature Directory
By Mary Adamski


A bill proposed by state and county criminal justice officials to get habitual misdemeanor offenders into prison threatens mentally ill and homeless people, state lawmakers were told.

"The broad parameters of this bill severely impact the homeless, chronic alcoholic, mentally ill and those who are unable to help themselves," public defender Richard Pollack told the House Judiciary Committee yesterday.

"This is a huge net you're sweeping. It affects a huge number of people."

The committee deferred action on the habitual-offender measure and two other bills proposed by the law enforcement coalition, which includes the state attorney general, prosecutors and police chiefs of the four counties, and the U.S. attorney.

The bill provides that a person with three prior misdemeanor convictions may be charged with a felony for a fourth misdemeanor as "habitual criminal behavior."

Advocates seek 'flexibility'

Kathleen Hasegawa of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance said the bill was one of those that "could inadvertently impact on the homeless. Do we want to put so much effort into arresting and putting them through the court system?"

She urged lawmakers to put money into rehabilitative and support programs such as the downtown Safe Haven shelter for mentally ill homeless people, which had its state funding cut last year.

Attorney General Margery Bronster said: "This is an option; it's not mandatory. We wanted flexibility to avoid mandatory prison for people who should not be incarcerated."

Honolulu Prosecutor Peter Carlisle gave examples of misdemeanor defendants who have told police they limited the things they've stolen to keep under the $300 limit that would kick the theft up to a felony. He gave examples of one chronic shoplifter with 47 arrests and another with 138 arrests since 1978.

The bill will apply the habitual-offender status for misdemeanor-level terroristic threatening, assault, sexual assault, abuse of a household member and criminal property damage as well as theft.

Chairman Paul Oshiro also called for deferral of a bill that would revise the statutory elements of murder. The first-degree murder charge, which carries a sentence of life without parole, is now limited to a person who causes multiple deaths, kills police, a prosecutor, judge or witness to a crime, or is a hired killer. The bill would extend the no-parole charge to a person who knows an action will cause death or creates a strong possibility of death.

Second-degree murder would be expanded to recklessly causing a death, and causing a death while committing a felony such as kidnapping, rape or robbery.

Redefining murder

Pollack objected, saying, "The proposal would eliminate the different degrees of seriousness of such conduct and punish the less serious forms of homicide equivalent to the more heinous forms of murder."

He said that in 1996-97, one person was convicted of first-degree murder, while 27 were convicted of second-degree murder. "Such a sentence for all murder convicts would mean that the state will be paying for the costs of imprisonment for many more persons, even when they are very aged and infirm."

The chairman said he recommended deferral because of the "diverse testimony" on the two bills. He said the amount of money needed to fund a third bill was grounds to defer a decision on it.

The third measure calls for $400,000 to establish a centralized computer database about the prison population, combining information kept by the attorney general, the Judiciary and the Department of Public Safety. The money would be used further for development of computer simulation modeling capability predicting the impact on criminal justice resources of future initiatives.

The computer programs would help analyze the effect on prison overcrowding of anti-crime laws such as "truth in sentencing," which would require a convicted felon to serve at least 85 percent of the court-imposed prison term.

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