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Affirming Two Truths: True Safety and the Inherent Dignity and Worth of ALL

By Lee Curran (she/her) Co-facilitator of the Transformative Justice Task Force and member of The First Unitarian Church of Honolulu

What does true safety look like? Our communities as well as the larger world feel unsafe. Recently, the headlines about crimes in Hawai’i are abundant and the popular narrative of “get tough on crime” is more popular than ever. Yet, does mass incarceration truly make us safer? Perhaps the perception of safety serves to make us feel safer but in reality, it’s just a mirage obscuring the truth and putting up barriers to meaningful reform.

Our country is addicted to mass incarceration. This tweet by Beth Shelburne has been widely circulated, "If incarceration prevents crime, why isn't the United States the safest country in the world?" I wonder..... The United States ranks number one in the world for highest rate of incarceration per 100,000 people and yet we feel unsafe. We are on a hamster wheel of dysfunction and bad outcomes with our criminal legal system. There is a disconnect with the rate of incarceration and the safety, health and well-being of our communities. We need to do something tremendously different than to build a new potentially $1 billion OCCC jail and to keep people who are presumed innocent, not yet convicted of a crime and unable to afford cash bail in pre-trial incarceration.

Currently in the 2022 Hawai’i State Legislative session, HB1567HD1SD1 provides a pathway to addressing the overuse of the “front door” to incarceration, the requirement for cash bail to buy your freedom. HB1567 eliminates the use of monetary bail and requires defendants to be released on their own recognizance for certain nonviolent offenses, subject to exceptions. In its introduced form, the bill included people accused of non-violent misdemeanors and non-violent class C felonies with many exclusions. The House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs (JHA) committee eliminated this inclusion of non-violent class C felonies as well as another provision authorizing the Director of Public Safety to release a defendant if the defendant is unable to post bail in the amount of $99 or less. What started out as an incremental or moderate reform bill was watered down considerably.

In the JHA committee’s report including the amendments they added to the bill, they stated: “Your Committee finds that Hawaii's bail system is overwhelmed, inefficient, and ineffective, and continues to result in harmful, unnecessary socioeconomic impacts on low-income individuals and their families, a disproportionate number of whom may be Native Hawaiian. This measure seeks to reduce unnecessary pretrial incarceration and its cost to taxpayers and the community while maintaining public safety.”

Fortunately, the Senate Judiciary Committee restored the bill to its original intent that again would provide a pathway and opportunity to partially dismantle the unjust and inequitable cash bail system.

Professor Robert Perkinson’s Social Movements class at the University of Hawai’i Manoa is currently studying the cash bail system and is participating in efforts to educate about and support the reforms embedded in HB1567. These up and coming leaders are sending a strong message that the systems put in place by previous generations are not acceptable. Student Nathan Orr started a petition on that states: Hawai‘i’s cash bail system allows defendants with means to buy themselves out of pre-trial detention and condemns indigent defendants to jail solely because they lack access to money. Cash bail undermines public safety, contributes to jail overcrowding, wastes taxpayer resources, exacerbates economic and racial inequality, and inflicts punishment on poor people who have not been convicted of a crime.

David Hogan, a student in the Masters of Social Work program at UH and someone who was formerly incarcerated for a non-violent class C felony shared with me recently, “Innocent until proven guilty’, only applies to those who can afford cash bail. Right now it is an illusion for a lot of people who are currently in jail awaiting sentencing. There are people with minor, non-violent, drug charges (like residue left over in a baggie that was used for personal use), that are being subjected to unreasonably harsh conditions. These are not dealers. These are drug users who may want to quit, but haven’t received adequate treatment. Money spent housing people with substance use disorders is better spent on treatment programs, and education, rather than locking people up in barbaric conditions.”

These voices are “spilling the tea”, as they like to say but not in a gossipy, harmful way but in a way that amplifies the inherent dignity and worth of all the people of Hawai’i. They are speaking truth, articulating wisdom and providing hope and opportunities for the upcoming generations. They and many others of older generations are recognizing that we must break free from our addiction to mass incarceration and the false sense of safety we feel locking people up away from their communities. Otherwise, we will continue to experience the revolving door of incarceration - where individuals are detained in jails and punished for being poor in a place that exacerbates despair, violence and trauma.

Let’s jump off this hamster wheel of dysfunction and move forward on healing and transformative actions that will shift us towards a place of true safety, care and compassion in and for our communities.

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