Hawaii bail system victimizes taxpayers, too

by Derek Daplin

Hawaii’s criminal justice bail system apparently is another unfortunate example of how government inefficiency is resulting in excessively high costs to Hawaii taxpayers.

Hawaii’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last week released a report, “As Much Justice As You Can Afford — Hawaiiʻs Accused Face an Unequal Bail System,” showing that bail practices in the state ensnare Hawaii’s lower-income residents with high bail amounts difficult for the accused to pay, leading to overcrowding in our state’s jail system — which, in turn, is burdening Hawaii taxpayers to the tune of about $60 million a year.

Sadly, about half of the 2,200 people in Hawaii’s jails have not even been convicted, and are simply awaiting trial, according to the study.

Those accused-but-not-convicted inmates on average spend about 90 days in jail just waiting for their trials, compared to the average of 15 days in large county jails in other U.S. states.

This delay in getting the accused to trial, combined with high bail amounts, is an injustice inflicted on the detainees as well as a financial and social burden for the rest of us.

The ACLU study noted it costs $146 a day per person to house detainees, which over the period of a year is about $53,290, or roughly $60 million dollars a year for the 1,100 or so pretrial detainees in Hawaii.

At the time of the study, only 44 percent of the 1,529 individuals facing money bail were able to post bail. For Class C Felony charges, Honolulu County had the highest average bail amount at over $20,000, while Hawaii County had a $3,700 average for the same charges.

The study suggested that one reason the bail amounts can’t be paid is that they are “set using pre-determined charge-based bail schedules.”

Instead of bail schedules, Hawaii’s bail system should instead “carefully consider the individual circumstances of the arrestee, including flight risk, dangerousness, and ability to pay,” the study concluded.

Hawaii’s overpopulated jail system has led some lawmakers to propose building a new jail to replace the aging Oahu Community Correctional Center. A consultant for the state last year estimated it could cost between $433 million to $673 million to build a new jail in Halawa.

Beside the economic cost, the Hawaii ACLU believes that the state’s bail practices have high social consequences, since individuals in jail who can’t post bail cannot work or be with their families.

Self-described “conservative” groups such as Right on Crime also are alarmed by the negative social consequences of pretrial incarceration.  

Marc Levin, Right on Crime policy director, noted that low-risk defendants who are detained for multiple days are more likely to commit more crimes later.

Writing in November 2016, Levin wrote that not only did the cost to taxpayers of pretrial incarceration nationwide amount to some $9 billion a year, but “there are also human costs.”

Research, he said, “has found that, when held for two to three days, low-risk defendants have a nearly 40 percent greater likelihood of committing new crimes than comparable defendants held no more than 24 hours. This could be due to loss of employment, housing, and even family support during lengthy periods of pretrial incarceration.”

Just as important, of course, is the loss of due process rights for the individuals detained for excessive amounts of time prior to their trials. The U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment guarantees speedy trials, and too many of our citizens — especially our lower-income neighbors who can’t afford to post bail — aren’t getting them.

It’s important for Hawaii to consider the enormous costs of its harsh bail policies and long pretrial delays, both for the unlucky individuals unnecessarily detained by such government inefficiencies and for the taxpayers footing the unnecessarily excessive bills.

Derek Daplin was the director of communications for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

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