HILO — Gov. Neil Abercrombie has not made a decision on reopening Kulani prison, a spokesman said Thursday, a day after the governor signed a package of bills aimed at reducing the number of prisoners sent to the mainland.
“It’s possible but no decision has been made one way or the other,” said Jim Boersema, communications director for the Governor’s Office.
The laws, recommended by a Justice Reinvestment Initiative working group, make several sentencing changes, including allowing probation for second-time felony drug offenders and reducing probation for some second- and third-degree felonies from five to four years.
Additionally, the new laws expand the parole board from three to five members, require pretrial risk assessments within three working days of incarceration, adds 15 staff members for victim services, and ups the amount of money that can be deducted from prisoner earnings to fund restitution from 10 percent to 25 percent.
State Sen. Josh Green, who served on the working group Abercrombie created, said the aim of the legislation is to make the state’s judicial system more efficient and reduce the cost of incarceration.
The state spends about $45 million a year to house 1,700 inmates, about a third of its prisoners, in mainland prisons because of overcrowding.
“The entire approach was meant to give us a better capacity to imprison the most dangerous people in society and not overly focus on nonviolent offenders,” said Green, D-Kohala, Kona.
Green said the 40-member working group discussed reopening Kulani Correctional Facility, but that was seen as too expensive, at least for now.
An Abercrombie spokesperson said last August that reopening the prison was being looked at as part of the “long-term goal of returning our inmates home.”
Then-Gov. Lina Lingle made the decision to close the prison, located 20 miles south of Hilo at the end of Stainback Highway 20 in 2009 as the state faced a $786 million budget deficit.
The prison housed 123 inmates. Then-Public Safety Director Clayton Frank said at the time its closure would save the state between $2.8 million and $6 million annually.
The 614-acre property is now being used for the Hawaii National Guard’s Youth Challenge Academy, a training camp for at-risk teens.
Green said he supports housing more inmates in the state, possibly by reopening Kulani, and added that may become more likely as the state gets more control over its incarceration costs.
“If we can correct the way we deal with our justice in Hawaii then we have those resources to do that,” he said. “Otherwise, we don’t.”
Rep. Clift Tsuji, D-South Hilo, Puna, said he also supports the bills signed Wednesday and taking a look at reopening the facility.
“Knowing that we are in a very tight money situation, I think this helps,” he said.
Last session, Tsuji and eight other Big Island representatives introduced a resolution requesting the state to consider building a new prison on Hawaiian Home Lands adjacent to Hilo International Airport.
“That was a feel for consideration, not a mandate,” he said.
The resolution died in committee.