WHT Editorial: Really, how hard can fixing jail blunders be?

It’s a bit difficult to appreciate the scope of the internal investigation going on right now inside the ranks of the state Department of Public Safety because it sounds like something that should be pretty straightforward.

The Department of Public Safety has a record-tracking problem. And it really shouldn’t. In the world of incarceration, the department is tasked with little else than holding, monitoring and releasing inmates. They’re also responsible for transporting them around the island. So it should know who belongs in its ranks and who doesn’t. Nearly six months into the investigation, the community is still waiting word on why DPS often releases people from Hawaii Community Correction Center when it shouldn’t.


Why, it boils down to, can’t DPS read and follow its own records?

What prompted the inside probe was a rash of inmates repeatedly released by mistake. This year alone, a newspaper investigation in October found the state had erroneously released nine inmates, with six of those on the Big Island, including an accused killer on July 23.

Since that report, the state’s erroneously released another.

Both the accused killer, Brian Lee Smith, and the most recent example who walked away Oct. 22, Phil James, later turned themselves in without incident.

Big Island has been fortunate nothing terrible has come from the blunders.

But it’s difficult to appreciate the scope of the internal examination because, months later, details on its findings are mum. That’s not unusual. Those types of findings usually are. Agencies can be reticent at sharing what can be embarrassing inside assessments with the public. Yet, why so long? Half a year later, officials are still trying to pluck away at pinpointing a reading-records problem.

Who gets released, when, and how is that information shared through the ranks so everyone involved has it?

That’s it. That’s the question here.

Yes, governments are bigger than your average workforce and because of that can move as slowly as an aircraft carrier executing a three-point turn. But if this were a problem inside a private office, most of the issues would have been ironed out quickly in a company-wide email.

DPS Public Information Officer Toni Schwartz hasn’t spoken of the new DPS policy specifically, but she told West Hawaii Today after the high profile mishaps that the department acknowledged that procedural improvement is needed for the current system in the Big Island’s 3rd Circuit Court.

“The Department of Public Safety is committed to working collaboratively with our Judicial partner on ways to make procedural improvements to the current system,” she said.

DPS hasn’t been able to detail what issues they found that led to Smith’s release in July and how they were going to address it. Currently, the policy at HCCC is inmates are released upon court order, records which were called “antiquated” by Deputy Attorney General Laura Maeshiro during a court hearing earlier this year that called HCCC warden Peter Cabreros to court to explain the mishaps.

Maeshiro didn’t divulge much in court, pointing to the pending results of the internal investigation and safeguards safety officials pledged to implement. Part of the changes including allowing only two top officials authorization to release inmates.

More is apparently planned.

“We promised to sit with our Judiciary partners to discuss ways to tighten up the process in the 3rd Circuit Court and we have held true to our promise,” Schwartz told West Hawaii Today earlier this year.

With discussions ongoing, nothing more can be shared in the meantime.

Really, though, it can’t be that difficult. Make sure the records are clear and attainable and capable people have access to them.

That’s it. We’d be stunned if deeper, more complex technical problems were at play. We suspect not, which could prove embarrassing to share when that day comes — soon, we hope.

Because thankfully — but sadly, too — nobody is reinventing the wheel here.