Neil Abercrombie, Probation Officer-in-Chief

The Civil Beat

by Chad Blair

Innovative justice can create surprising bedfellows.

On Wednesday, the Hawaii chief justice, Mark Recktenwald — a Republican appointee to the court — praised the Democratic governor, Neil Abercrombie, for supporting the state’s 2-year-old justice reinvestment initiative.

The initiative is a data-driven approach that aims to find inefficiencies in Hawaii’s courts, jails and prisons to help increase public safety, reduce recidivism and bring down costs.

Recktenwald said that Abercrombie’s “unique perspective” as a former probation officer is unusual for a governor but of value to governors in other states.

Abercrombie smiled and joked, “I’m on probation now.”

The governor was alluding to what will be his final re-election effort, as 2014 will largely be a referendum on how Abercrombie has performed.

His track record on what is dubbed JRI, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, could help.

The praise from the chief justice about the “JRI” reforms came at a state Capitol press conference where Abercrombie launched a new chapter in the initiative: the formation of a working group focused on finding ways to cut juvenile crime and costs.

The group, which includes legislators, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement and community advocates, is similar in composition to the working group that signed off on JRI.

As Abercrombie observed, the costs of incarceration are not only financial, but also human.

Many of the 5,000 underage criminals in the state’s prison system suffer from substance abuse, mental health problems and family dysfunction. Lack of addiction treatment is a problem, particularly on the neighbor islands.

New Laws

With technical help from the Pew Charitable Trust — Pew staff crunched the data on Hawaii’s parole rates, sentencing and other statistics — the JRI working group made recommendations to the Hawaii Legislature. The result was two pieces of legislation that became law in 2012.

Act 139 requires that a pre-trial risk assessment be completed within three days of a suspect’s placement in a community correctional center. It expands the membership of the Hawaii Paroling Authority to help it identify offenders most likely to benefit from programming and supervision, limits the duration of incarceration for first-time parole violators and raises the percentage deducted from an inmates’ earnings for victim restitution payments.

Act 140 allows for probation for some second-time convictions involving specific drug offenses, and for four years of probation for specific class B or class C felonies. It also requires a defendant’s probation officer to report to the courts on how the defendant is complying with probation.

In its statement, the administration claims that the new laws have shown “encouraging results, including a 5 percent drop in the prison population.”

Asked whether JRI can be considered a success so quickly, Recktenwald cautioned that “hard numbers” are needed — something he said he expected Pew to help with. Senate President Donna Mercado Kim, who also spoke at the press conference, said Pew has seen “positive responses” in states where JRI has been implemented.

The working group on juvenile justice will make its recommendations to the Legislature for the 2014 session, and Kim and House Rep. Mele Carroll (standing in for Speaker Joe Souki at the presser) said they would look forward to what the group has to say.

JRI is a rare example of all three branches of government working in support of a shared goal. One of the few exceptions has come from prosecutors, who are wary of putting some former inmates back on the street.

Abercrombie has made criminal justice reform a top priority, and Wednesday’s launch of its new youth chapter will no doubt play well with the public. His staff made sure to film the event, and posted lots of photos online soon after the event ended.

Which made it all the more odd that Abercrombie did not stay for the entirety of his own press conference; the head of the executive branch left for another commitment, leaving the heads of the legislative and judicial branches to take questions from the media about his own initiative.

Oh, well. There will no doubt be more press conferences to come.