As in many states, the number of people incarcerated in Hawai‘i has exploded. Between 1980 and its peak in 2005, the number of people incarcerated in Hawai‘i rose by 524 percent — despite our crime rate remaining steady. As of December 2019, a reported 5,100 people are incarcerated in Hawaii’s prisons and jails meant to house just 3,500 people. Many are there simply because they can’t afford bail. Because of this, they are forced to spend days, months, and sometimes years away from their families and community.
It's apparent that our criminal legal system is in crisis.
Our criminal justice policies have created a system of mass incarceration that hurts our communities and has disproportionate impacts on low-income families and communities of color. Too many of our neighbors who commit nonviolent offenses are ensnared in a prison system that is severely overcrowded. Existing tough-on-crime policies, particularly around punitive drug policies, have failed to achieve public safety while putting an unprecedented number of people behind bars and eroding constitutional rights. This system also erodes economic opportunity, family stability, and civic engagement during incarceration and sometimes creating life-long challenges upon release.
It’s time for a change. It’s time for smart justice.
Smart justice is a way of addressing criminal justice issues that solves the problems of crime rather than simply punishing people. Smart justice addresses the profound connections of crime to mental health, addiction, employment, education, and housing. Smart justice doesn’t spend money on ineffective responses to crime. Instead, it clears clogged courtrooms and overcrowded jails and prisons, empowers communities while keeping them safe, and actually improves safety through approaches proven to reduce crime/recidivism and to help people lead law-abiding lives.
Imprisonment is a brutal and costly response to crime that traumatizes incarcerated people and hurts families and communities. It should be the last option, not the first. Cash bail is over-relied upon and leaves people waiting in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay, not because they pose a risk to public safety. Public safety is best served by focusing on solving the problems that lead to crime rather than maximizing sentences after crimes have already occurred.
We believe in expanding the use of treatment and diversion programs whenever possible. By targeting the underlying problems that lead to crime in the first place, effective diversion programs can make our justice system fairer and our islands safer. Rehabilitation, not punishment.
Eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system
Unsurprisingly, Hawaii’s incarceration crisis has had a particularly severe impact on people of color, especially Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. In 2018, this group made up 23 percent of adults in the state, but a reported 47 percent of people incarcerated under Hawaii’s jurisdiction that year. Black communities in Hawai‘i are also disproportionately impacted by incarceration. Though just 3 percent of adults in Hawai`i were Black in 2018, PSD reported that 5 percent of people incarcerated under the state’s jurisdiction that year were Black.
Racism is so ingrained in the system that it cannot be mitigated by solely reducing the scale of mass incarceration. We will need to implement racial justice strategies to dismantle disparate imprisonment rates in Hawai‘i.
Prosecutors are the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system, with the ability to wield the power of the state against an individual to deprive that person of life, liberty, and property. Hawai‘i should aim to adopt prosecutorial reform that increases transparency, enhances oversight, and embraces diversion and alternatives to incarceration.