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Justice Coalition Urges Alternative to New Jail

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Department of Public Safety

The state’s plan to tackle overcrowding at Hawai?i’s largest correctional facility is receiving pushback. A proposal to replace the aging O‘ahu Community Correctional Center by building a new jail has been on the table since last fall. With the deadline for public comments on the proposal just days away, one group is petitioning the state to seek alternatives to new construction. HPR’s Ku?uwehi Hiraishi reports.

It’s no secret that Hawai?i’s jails and prisons are overcrowded. Our state has four prisons and four jails, which house an estimated 4,100 inmates. The facilities were designed to hold only about 2,500.

“The answer is not building more capacity because if we continue down that path all we’re gonna do is build a bigger jail and then 10 or 20 years down the road it’s gonna be full and we’re gonna have the same conversation,” says Carrie Ann Shirota, head of the Hawai?i Justice Coalition.

The group is petitioning the state to kill its plan to build a new jail and instead invest in criminal justice reform.

“If we invest in reform it’s going to benefit the entire community,” says Shirota, “It’s going to save us money. It can also reduce recidivism rates.”

Shirota says reforms starts at the front-end of the criminal justice system.

“Decriminalization - We charge people with so many offenses that weren’t offenses in the past. You didn’t end up arrested and jailed,” says Shirota, “Diversion - We also should have more community based health programs – mental health, substance abuse. I mean why is it that there’s no waitlist for jails and prisons? But there’s waitlists to get into substance abuse treatment?”

She says reforms were key in reducing incarcerated populations in states like California, New York, and New Jersey. In California alone the incarcerated population was cut by nearly 40,000.

“They accomplished this in a matter of six years,” says Shirota, “If you look at the current proposal on the table, they’re looking to build this new, giant facility with a thousand plus beds in six or seven years from now. So that does absolutely nothing to address overcrowding now.”

Last November, Governor David Ige announced the completion of a draft environmental study on the state’s largest jail – the O?ahu Community Correctional Center or OCCC.

“The draft environmental impact statement identified the Animal Quarantine Station in H?lawa as the preferred site for a new efficient, cost-effective facility,” says Gov. Ige.

It currently costs the state $67.3 million a year to house an estimated 1,200 inmates at OCCC. That’s more than twice its capacity. Shirota says a big part of that overcrowding is caused by what is known as the pre-trial population.  

“So meaning they’ve been accused but they’ve never had their day in court,” says Shirota, “Many other states have eliminated or reformed bail so they are not a risk to the community so they can be out in the community. About 60 percent of the incarcerated persons at OCCC are pre-trial.”

And reducing that population could mean overcrowding relief at OCCC. The deadline for comments on the state’s draft EIS is next Monday, January 8, 2018.

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