Don’t Water Down Law Helping Inmates Reenter Society

April is Second Chance Month, a time to raise awareness about the barriers to successful reentry into society and lift up opportunities for people formerly incarcerated to genuinely participate, contribute and succeed in society.

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It is a reminder that the state of Hawaii need not perpetuate the policies and behaviors of a punitive legal system by setting justice-involved people up to return to Hawaii’s overcrowded jails and prisons.

After years of tough-on-crime policies, we now know that they do not create safety, but exponentially more harm.

In 2017, the Hawaii Legislature wisely passed House Bill 845 that became Hawaii Revised Statutes section 353-H. It statutorily mandated the state Department of Public Safety to provide effective and comprehensive reentry planning and to issue civil identification documents to people exiting jails and prisons.

This law actionized dignity, second chances and basic humanity. It represents promising changes towards effective and efficient systems of care.

This is a simple, proven reentry strategy for reducing recidivism and keeping communities intact.

A guard tower at the Halawa prison on Oahu. Proposed legislation could hamper the state’s ability to help inmates return to society. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

However, the Department of Public Safety has failed to follow through on implementation. According to Hawaii’s Reentry Coordination office, about 46% of people who leave Hawaii’s jails and prisons do so without IDs.

Instead of innovating solutions to comply with this mandate, legislators are on track to undo this law, potentially setting Hawaii back years.

DPS Turning Its Back

Currently, House Bill 2169, which would water down HRS 353-H, has traction in the legislative session. If the measure is approved, DPS would get a pass for failing to do what is required by law and is practiced by successful reentry programs around the nation. Despite the evidence that reentry planning assures safer communities, the government is turning its back on such promising approaches.

Education, health care, employment, housing and other systems of care have been demonstrated to transform lives, particularly of those formerly incarcerated. Fulfilling these basic needs reduces recidivism, saves taxpayer money, and keeps our communities together.

What does that look like?

What most of us take for granted: a government-issued ID, opportunities for employment and housing, a support system and access to contribute positively to community. Real public safety recognizes humanity and the power of redemption for those reentering their communities.

Fulfilling basic needs reduces recidivism, saves taxpayer money, and keeps communities together.

Genuine safety invests in the dignity and potential of justice-involved individuals. As they succeed, so do we all.

Reflecting on the six-plus months it took my son to receive a government ID post-release, it is clear that the incarceration system is like a trap — once you’re in, it is incredibly difficult to get out even after being released.

In fact, because the state of Hawaii was taking so long with identification appointments, my son took a different route and expedited a passport renewal.

The cost was about $230 versus $5 for a state identification card.  The time was six weeks versus six months.

Luckily, my son has a caring ohana to support him on his reentry journey. However, not everyone returning from incarceration to their families has the resources or support systems necessary to succeed.