'3 strikes' law could strain Isle prisons
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
By Kevin Dayton
State lawmakers are poised to pass a tough new "three strikes" law to impose life sentences on three-time violent felons but don't know how many inmates such a law would add to the packed state prison system.
While there is broad agreement that violent felons deserve harsh punishment, some prison experts worry the state may impose extra-long sentences on more inmates at a time when Hawai'i prisons are so full that more than 1,800 convicts are serving their sentences out of state.
The state created a computer model in 2000 that allowed corrections officials to calculate how changes such as a three-strikes law would affect the prison population, but the state abandoned the computer simulation two years ago after funding ran out.
The three-strikes proposal being considered at the Legislature would impose a prison term of 30 years to life for "habitual violent felons." Supporters and critics of the proposed three-strikes law agree its impact won't become clear for years to come.
The reason is that felons convicted for their third "strike" would be sentenced to years in prison under existing law anyway. The impact of a new three-strikes law on the prisons won't become apparent until those convicts pass the point where they would have been released under the existing law, and instead remain in prison because of the three-strikes law.
Robert Perkinson, assistant professor of American studies at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, said the proposed three-strikes law is a mistake. It would do little to make the state safer because people convicted of three violent felonies already are being sentenced to long stretches in prison, he said.
Crime research shows as inmates age into their 50s, they become much less likely to commit new offenses, yet the three-strikes law would impose life sentences on more convicts, causing state prisons to accumulate frail, elderly inmates who need expensive healthcare, he said.
"It's a complete waste of taxpayer money," Perkinson said. "For the felons that we really fear, it would be incarcerating them during the period of time in which they have maximum medical liability for the state and they are least likely to commit crimes."
PUBLIC SAFETY MAIN GOAL
State Attorney General Mark Bennett, a leading supporter of the bill, said the proposed three-strikes law would make the public safer and believes there would be no impact on the prison system for at least five to seven years.
Studies show a relatively small group of people are responsible for the vast majority of serious crimes, and the three-strikes law would ensure those people stay locked up, he said.
Bennett said research by the Attorney General's Hawai'i Criminal Justice Data Center suggests that if the law were already in place, only about 220 convicted felons in Hawai'i would have accumulated three "strikes" today.
Considering Hawai'i has about 5,900 people in prison or jail, and thousands more on probation or parole, 220 people would be a small portion of the state's convicts.
House Judiciary Vice Chairman Blake Oshiro said no estimates have been provided to lawmakers on the impact the bill would have on the prison system and that the issue is "one of our main questions."
The state now spends about $40 million a year to house Hawai'i inmates in privately run prisons on the Mainland because there is no room in Hawai'i correctional facilities.
Joe Allen, an instructor in Chaminade University's criminology and criminal justice department, worked on the computer model set up to project changes in the prison population. He urged the Senate Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee earlier this year to perform a computer simulation of the proposed law.
Hawai'i prisons are in a "population crisis," he said in an interview. "You want to know what's coming down the road, and I think they really need to simulate something like this."
Instead, the House version of the three-strikes bill instructs the state Department of Public Safety to report back to the Legislature in five years on the impact the legislation has on prison population, along with an estimate of how much the new law has cost the state.
Senate Bill 2260 appears likely to pass this year. The House and Senate drafts of the measure together have been put to two committee votes and three floor votes, and not one of the 76 state lawmakers has voted against either version of the bill.
"It is an election year, it is a political issue, and we don't want to look like we're soft on crime," said Oshiro, D-33rd (Halawa, 'Aiea, Pearlridge). "At the same time, we need to be aware of what are the real needs this will put on our prison system, because we don't have a new prison. ... The last thing we want is to start locking people up, and then being forced to let other people go."
The measure is scheduled for a House floor vote next week and is expected to pass easily. Afterward, lawmakers will try to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
Those differences are critical, Perkinson said. The Senate in its version designated a half-dozen offenses as violent crimes, including first-degree burglary, that were not included in the House version.
The Senate version would cause the time served by burglars to skyrocket, Perkinson predicted. The Hawai'i Paroling Authority in recent years has imposed minimum terms on about 100 convicts a year for first-degree burglary, setting minimum sentences that average between four and five years for each offense.
"That's not to excuse those sorts of crimes, but if we have someone who has broken into 30 houses to support a meth habit, we have to think about whether the best way to deal with this person is to devote a million dollars of taxpayer money to this one individual," Perkinson said.
'NARROW' LAW SOUGHT
Research shows that money would be better spent on drug treatment, child welfare services and prevention programs for youth, he said.
Bennett said ordinary people consider burglary to be a violent crime, and it should be included in the three-strikes bill.
He said he carefully considered which crimes should count as strikes, and said the Hawai'i proposal avoids the criticisms of California's three-strikes law. The California law imposes mandatory sentences of 25 years to life after a third conviction for any felony, including property crimes.
"This bill is narrowly tailored to reach the worst offenders," Bennett said. "We need to be concerned first and foremost with the people who are going to be murdered, raped, robbed and burglarized by the people this bill targets."
Reach Kevin Dayton at email@example.com.