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Audit sows seeds for change

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Sending Hawaii’s prison inmates to private facilities on the mainland has been regarded as public cost-saving at the expense of prisoners, who then are more prone to criminal relapse upon release. A new audit questions whether the practice has been all that economical. State officials should recognize the need to bring the inmates back to the islands, the sooner the better for both taxpayers and inmates.

In recent years, the state Department of Public Safety has reported that holding a Hawaii prisoner behind bars costs less than half as much in privately run mainland facilities than in Hawaii prisons. A report by Marion Higa, the state legislative auditor, has blasted that estimation, attributing it to "artificial cost figures derived from a calculation based on a flawed methodology, designed entirely on what is easiest for the department to report."

The state acknowledged in response to an American Civil Liberties Union class-action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners in the 1980s that its prisons were overcrowded and agreed to address the problem. In 1995, the state began transferring inmates to mainland facilities as a temporary fix. It became more permanent as Govs. Ben Cayetano and Linda Lingle became frustrated trying to find welcome backyards to build a prison. The NIMBY presence remains to this day.

About 2,000 inmates, more than one-third of Hawaii’s prison population, are serving their time in three Arizona centers owned and operated by the Corrections Corp. of America, the nation’s leading private provider of prison facilities. Higa’s audit points out that the arrangement is steered through the town of Eloy, Ariz., a government-to-government maneuver that exempts the deal from a state law requiring competitive contract bidding. It notes that the procedure amounts to "circumventing the law" because the Public Safety Department "actually conducts all transactions directly with CCA."

The audit provides ammunition to Gov. Neil Abercrombie in his pledge to bring the inmates from the mainland back to Hawaii prisons or other facilities, such as halfway houses. He has called the policy of sending prisoners to the mainland "dysfunctional all the way around — socially, economically, politically and morally."

The new governor, who understands the system through his experience as a probation officer, will need the repeal of laws enacted over the past decade or more that require judges to order minimum prison terms for felons. Legislators enacted those laws as a way of showing they were tough on crime, but they should appreciate by now that such an approach can cost more than it’s worth.

It will take time — at least several years — to develop ways to accommodate the influx of prisoners and design rehabilitation programs more appropriate for those convicted of nonviolent crimes. But it’s the only prudent way to get a grip on our dysfunctional prison system.

The time to begin is now.

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