Opinion: Data should drive crime prevention

Advocates for criminal justice reform call for a smarter approach to prison policy.

Special to The Hawaii Independent

By Kat Brady, Meda Chesney-Lind, Marilyn Brown, Janet Davidson and Carrie Ann Shirota

After eight months of work, it was truly disappointing to read that Honolulu’s prosecutor, Keith Kaneshiro, opposes a data-driven approach to crime prevention and intervention — one that could save Hawaii taxpayers more than $150 million.

In his March 7 commentary (”Do proper groundwork before bringing prisoners back to isles,” Star-Advertiser, Island Voices, March 7), he made statements that are erroneous and misleading regarding the proposed JRI legislation.

Here are just a few:
» Incarceration was the reason for the decline in crime/victimization.
Actually, crime fell nationally without regard to incarceration rates. Some states, like New York, had more significant reductions in crime rates while simultaneously reducing incarceration rates, whereas other states like Oklahoma saw their crime rate stay the same despite massive increases in incarceration.

» Parole violators can be sent back to prison for only six months.
This is flat wrong. If a new offense is charged, such as evading supervision or a second technical violation, there is no cap.

» Increasing the threshold for felony theft would result in no effective consequence for theft.
Hawaii’s felony theft threshold is $300 and has not been increased since 1986 (nearly three decades). Hawaii is one of only a handful of states with such a low threshold. The bill addresses Class B felony theft that currently requires a five-year prison sentence.

Should the community bear a $250,000 price tag to incarcerate a person who probably needs substance abuse treatment and has a slim chance of receiving that while incarcerated for a theft of $301?

This does not pencil out when we know there are more effective alternatives.

» JRI does not provide for more parole and probation officers to supervise the added caseload.
In fact, a bill before the Legislature calls for additional probation and parole officers, as well as planners, reentry staff, pre-trial assessment staff, staff for victim restitution and new positions for victim advocates serving all counties.

Hawaii is the first jurisdiction to increase restitution and notification to ensure safety planning for victims.

The members of the bipartisan Hawaii JRI Working Group represent every criminal justice agency in Hawaii, including victim advocates and prosecutors from all four counties. All three branches of government are represented on the working group that reviewed the data, which led to the bills now before the 2012 Legislature.

Hawaii’s prison and jail population increased 18 percent from 2000 to 2011 due to delays in the pre-trial process, requiring inmates to complete programs that have little or no effect and allowing prisoners to max out their sentences so they leave prison with nobody watching.

People who have not been found guilty of a crime spend more time in jail in Honolulu than in any of the 39 largest counties in America. Thirty-two of those counties manage to release defendants under non-financial conditions in less than 15 days, compared to Honolulu’s 71 days.

Hawaii’s taxpayers cannot afford this kind of inefficiency in the pretrial process, and we can’t be safe when the most dangerous convicted criminals are being released with no guidance or supervision following prison.

The JRI recommendations reflect Hawaii’s desire to enhance public safety and increase the accountability of those who commit crimes. The savings (estimated at more than $150 million over six years) are the by-product of creating a more comprehensive and data-driven approach to addressing crime and responding to it more efficiently.

Those who oppose these measures essentially support the status quo that costs more and does little or nothing to enhance public safety.

Kat Brady is coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons; Meda Chesney-Lind is chair of women’s studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa; Marilyn Brown is an associate professor of sociology, UH-Hilo; Janet Davidson is an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Chaminade University; and Carrie Ann Shirota is an attorney on Maui. A version of this essay was published earlier in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.