Thursday, February 8, 2001
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Posted on: Thursday, February 8, 2001

Island Voices
Inmates should get credit for programs

By Mahealani Kamauu

According to Hawaii law, an incarcerated person should be paroled when two conditions have been satisfied: The person cannot benefit from further imprisonment, and risk to the community is minimal.

Since 1967, the Hawaii Paroling Authority (HPA) has had complete and broad discretion to determine when the two conditions are met. It can, and has, ignored recommendations by corrections officials, among others.

There is a proposal before the Legislature in which credit would be given for programs successfully completed by inmates. The HPA would be required to take these credits into account, but could deny an inmate parole if it felt the public’s interest would not be served.

This proposal is not intended to undermine the HPA’s authority or criticize its "strict" decisions, as a Feb. 4 editorial suggests. Rather, it is an attempt to set forth an objective standard by which all concerned, including the HPA, corrections officials, prisoners, families, as well as the community, may be guided.

Since 1967, the broad discretion exercised by the HPA has resulted in widely varying outcomes, depending on who its members are. Hawaii is one of only six states that does not spell out an earned-credit mechanism to guide parole decisions.

The present system makes it difficult, if not impossible, to discern how an inmate’s demonstrable improvement may influence, or even if it does influence, HPA decisions.

A related problem is that most rehabilitation programs offered in Mainland facilities are not integrated with and therefore not recognized by Hawaii’s corrections system. Inmates who participate in rehabilitation programs on the Mainland must repeat these programs when they are returned to Hawaii immediately prior to, and as a condition of, their release.

Is it our intention as a Hawaii society to be punitive without amelioration, rehabilitation or healing? Do we really need to lock up so many, for so long, without signaling hope, in order to be safe? Other states have been willing to take a more rational, and ultimately humane, approach, including the elimination of mandatory sentencing laws. Hawaii is unlike most states in the broad authority it delegates its Paroling Authority.

Mahealani Kamauu is executive director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation and a member of Kakoo Ohana Paahao, a support group for families of the incarcerated.

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