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Lawmakers Advance Bill to End Cash Bail in Hawai?i for Low-Level Offenses

Casey Harlow / HPR
Maui Community Correctional Center.

State lawmakers have advanced a proposal to end cash bail in Hawai?i for pre-trial detainees – those arrested but not yet convicted of a crime – who are being held for certain non-violent offenses. Senate Bill 1260 aims to address overcrowding in Hawai?i’s jails and prisons, but those who oppose the measure argue that the bail system is there for a reason.

Kat Brady is with the Community Alliance on Prisons--and told the House Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs that the price of the cash bail system can linger for years.

“We think that criminalizing poverty just clogs up the system and it ruins people’s lives,” says Brady, “Even a few days in jail can actually impact somebody lifelong.”

According to the latest data from the state Department of Public Safety, there are an estimated 894 pre-trial detainees currently scattered throughout the state’s correctional facilities. Brady estimates that detaining these inmates costs Hawai?i taxpayers more than $177,000 a day.

But those who oppose the bill say cash bail is there for a reason – to ensure a court appearance and the public’s safety. Honolulu Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mark Tom says his agency isn’t opposed to different types of bail reform, but there needs to be a mechanism in place.

“You can’t just get rid of the system in place without replacing it with a system. What is that new system going to look like and how does that interact with the court system,” says Tom, “I don’t think the department is opposed to different type of bail reform or pre-trial reform, but the devil is just in the details on what that system would look like.”

SB1260 would eliminate the use of monetary bail for pre-trial detainees being held for non-violent, low-level crimes such as traffic offenses, violations, non-violent petty misdemeanors, and non-violent misdemeanors. Defendants would be released on their own recognizance with exceptions for inmates with a history of nonappearance, prior convictions, pending cases, or charges involving violence.

Maui Public Defender Ben Lowenthal says ending cash bail for certain pre-trial detainees is not only the right thing to do, but it could also help reduce the spread of COVID-19 from jails into communities.

“I would say with COVID in the jail, and the risk of it spreading quickly beyond the jail – the dichotomy is flipped, and you have to ask yourself for certain types of offenses and certain types of people, the community may actually be safer with less people in the jail,” says Lowenthal, “And so I do think it's a concept that is far, far overdue and it can't come soon enough.”

A COVID-19 outbreak that began in early February at the Maui jail has so far infected 85 inmates and 2 staff. The state Public Safety department does not specifically tally the number pre-trial detainees among the COVID-19 cases in its jails and prisons, but an estimated 54 percent of the Maui jail population is made up of pre-trial detainees.

The House Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs approved SB1260 with amendments. The measure now moves to the House Finance Committee for further discussion.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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