Sunday, December 2, 2001

Fee unfair to drivers
caught by cameras

The issue: Motorists will have
to pay $25 to challenge citations
arising from photos.

The scheme by the state Department of Transportation to use cameras to nab speeders and red-light runners is already problematic without the addition of another factor -- that of unfairness. If motorists choose to challenge citations issued through the camera program, the DOT says, they will have to pay $25 up front to do so, penalizing citizens before they are proven guilty.

Another inequity is that the $25 -- called a subpoena fee -- applies only to citations originating from the camera units because an employee of the company running the system would be paid to show up in court. Motorists ticketed by police officers are assessed a fee because the officers are already on the government payroll.

A spokeswoman for Transportation Director Brian Minaai says motorists may recover their money if they "prove they weren't at fault," unfairly placing the burden of proof on a defendant.

Inequities arise when cameras are unable to photograph every vehicle that exceeds a speed limit. If most of the drivers in a line of cars are speeding, the cameras may not be able to focus on each license plate as they whiz by, the equipment supplier concedes. Citations, then, will be given only to those the cameras have caught.

Rectifying these problems will likely become a matter for the courts. The DOT should stand ready to defend the fee as well as the method by which the company, Affiliated Computer Services Inc., is being paid to operate the program.

ACS will make money by keeping a percentage of the fine for each tickets it issues, a system it used in San Diego before a California judge ruled the practice unacceptable. Although the department was aware of the San Diego ruling, it unwisely went ahead with a similar arrangement.

The DOT spokeswoman said the state has no funds to pay ACS. The attempt at cost-saving, however, may backfire if the state ends up paying lawyers and possibly fines for knowingly instituting a flawed program. In the end, the money will come from the same pocket -- the taxpayers'.

Using cameras to deter scofflaws who endanger pedestrians and law-abiding drivers may become productive but the program has far too many problems. It is set to run for three years and the transportation department should make the necessary adjustments now so that it can make a credible evaluation later.

Flexibility needed
in parole policy

The issue: The state Supreme
Court has upheld the parole board's
discretion on releases.

HAWAII'S Paroling Authority may have reacted to public pressure when it chose to deny some felons the opportunity for early release from their prison sentences. The state Supreme Court has affirmed the parole board's right to be absolute in some cases, denying inmates even a hearing, while being generously lenient with others. Legislation is needed to allow less flexibility at one end of the sentencing scale and require more at the other.

In a 3-2 decision, the high court ruled that state law allows the parole board, at the beginning of a felon's prison term, to order that the judge's sentence be served in its entirety. The order denies the felon a hearing before the board during his prison term on whether he should granted an early release.

The ruling came in the case of Gregory Williamson, who was sentenced by a judge to simultaneous five-year prison terms for burglary and assault convictions. The parole board ordered Williamson to serve the entire five years.

Most state prisoners get a much better break. A recent national study found that, on average, state prisoners had been serving less than half of their sentenced time. The average in some states was as low as 18 percent.

Public outrage prompted Congress in 1996 to enact a "truth in sentencing" measure. It authorized a grant of $1 million for prison construction in a state requiring that felons serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Hawaii's law-enforcement coalition asked for such a requirement for two years, but the Legislature refused.

Terrance Tom, then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, expressed concern about the effect on the burgeoning prison population. That, of course, is why states adopting the requirement are rewarded with federal construction funds. Since then, a falling crime rate has eased the pressure for prison expansion. The court decision should prompt a fresh look at paroling policies.

The 85 percent requirement, which many states have embraced to qualify for prison construction money, seems appropriate at both ends of the paroling process. Just as no prisoner should serve less than 85 percent of his or her sentence, all prisoners should be afforded at least a parole hearing after serving 85 percent of the time ordered by the judge.

Such legislation would sharply limit the parole board's discretion but would force it to consider a modicum of flexibility. After all, most of the discretion in determining a prison sentence should belong to the sentencing judge.

Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, Publisher

Frank Bridgewater, managing editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner,
assistant managing editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, assistant managing editor 529-4762;

Richard Halloran, editorial page director, 529-4790;
John Flanagan, contributing editor 294-3533;

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