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September 1, 2023

Fascinating accounting of Hawaii's unusual sentencing process and increasing minimum terms

This lengthy new article from Honolulu City Beat provides an interesting review of Hawaii's unique sentencing system and recent trends. The full headline provides the basics: "Hawaii’s Sentencing Process Is Complicating Efforts To Reform The Prison System: More aggressive minimum sentences coincide with severe overcrowding and deteriorating prison conditions." Here are some of the particulars:

In the last six years, of the 10 most common offenses, nine have seen their average minimum sentence increase, a Civil Beat analysis has found. Several offenses have seen spikes in minimums of more than 20%, while second-degree assault minimums more than doubled.  The minimum sentence for first-degree burglary has gone from just under four years to over six years, meaning inmates convicted in 2022 will spend nearly two more years in prison before they’re eligible for parole than their 2017 counterparts.

Hawaii is the only state that assigns a paroling authority the responsibility for setting minimum sentences for felonies, which determine how long before prisoners are eligible for parole.  Inmates can be grilled on their drug and life habits before getting slapped with a minimum sentence well beyond what they might have expected....

The longer minimums also come as severe overcrowding and dilapidated conditions in jails and prisons across the state.  In a July Department of Public Safety newsletter, DPS Director Tommy Johnson said he plans to "shift from what some may see as a punitive incarceration model to a model focused on treatment, education, and successful re-entry."

But the trend toward longer minimum sentences is an "insight into the fact that rather than becoming more therapeutic, the system's becoming more punitive," said former Hawaii Associate Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilson....

The sentencing guidelines on the HPA website lay out a set of criteria but specify that the authority may "deviate from the guidelines" with a written justification to do so. DPS, which encompasses the paroling authority, declined to answer questions about changes in sentencing or provide data on the criteria used, saying in an email that justifications are done on a case-by-case basis. It also declined to provide data on the criteria used in sentencing, saying that was "not in a readily available format."

Deputy public defender Jon Ikenaga said the current parole board has made "it clear that they don't feel bound at all by the trial court decision," making it hard to advise clients on whether to take a plea deal or go to trial.

Part of the struggle to understand parole board decisions comes from a lack of available data.  Data for offense-level minimum terms is available in annual reports posted by the HPA, but there is no information on basic characteristics that can impact sentencing such as prior convictions or level of offense.  Data on demographics like race or gender also is not available....

The need for data takes on greater significance considering the influence that the parole board has on the criminal justice system.  A report by the The Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan research institute at the University of Minnesota Law School, found that the the parole board in Hawaii is one of the most powerful in the country.

Because minimum sentences are left up to the discretion of the parole board, any patterns or deviations in sentencing are the result of voluntary decision-making on the part of the board members.  Other states have moved away from minimum sentencing, or have minimums set by trial judges who retain a level of judicial independence.  The Hawaii Paroling Authority consists of five members who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate....

The Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission, the body tasked with moving Hawaii’s prisons and jails to a “rehabilitative and therapeutic model” of corrections, is bringing added scrutiny to the Hawaii Paroling Authority. Commission Chair Mark Patterson said "public confidence is down" in the parole board.  "There's a lack of transparency," Patterson said. "Who are these individuals that were given this power of decision-making?"

This year, legislators passed House Concurrent Resolution 23, creating a task force to study if HPA should have the responsibility of setting minimum terms. On Sept. 12, the task force, which is also chaired by Patterson, will be meeting to discuss the role of the parole board in minimum sentencing. "We just have to take a closer look at whether or not the minimum sentencing process of the Hawaiian Paroling Authority is beneficial to public safety," Patterson said.

September 1, 2023 at 10:43 AM | Permalink

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