March 13, 2008State legislators meet for just 60 working days a year, and during that time scramble to craft and pass all sorts of bills. Here's a look at three that aren't getting nearly the publicity they deserve:
THE MENTALLY ILL AND PRISON
One thing's for sure: the state has a huge job to do, dealing with a prison population where four of 10 inmates are mentally ill. And, according to a recent Pew Center report, this is the first time that one in 10 Americans is behind bars.
America is the world's No. 1 incarcerator.
In Hawai'i, there've been major problems with overcrowding and dealing the mentally ill who find themselves behind bars. The U.S. Department of Justice even sued the state for not treating mentally ill prisoners up to modern day standards.
There's just not enough room to house prisoners here, and so state officials outsource the job to privately run prisons in Arizona. Recently, the State of Hawai'i decided to build "tent-like" structures to house more inmates here in the islands. But the tents are just a short-term solution—and a way to capture federal dollars that were earmarked for a facility like the one planned for Pu'unene but are going to expire at the end of the year.
The elephant in the room is that the problem of overcrowding could soon be magnified. This year Arizona Governor Janet Nepolitano is pushing legislation to stop the free importation of murderers, rapists and other felons into her state. "It's a matter of public safety," Dennis Burke, her chief of staff, says.
And depending on what happens there, Hawai'i may need to ramp up, and quickly. But the state government hasn't been able to do much quickly. And when it's tried, it's stepped on toes and broken laws—a la the Superferry.
The State of Hawai'i was first brought up on charges of mishandling its incarcerated by the Department of Justice in the 1990s. In 2006, state officials formed yet another task force to study some of the issues and propose solutions. The legislature noted in the language first ordering the task force that there had been a host of proposals, but to organize them better, they should first do a study.
Maui's own Senator Rosalyn Baker (D, South and West Maui) chaired the task force and presented its findings to the 2008 legislature. By all accounts, they produced a comprehensive, valuable report, chock-full of solutions. But the slow beast that is government doesn't run.
Hence it's not really surprising that a bill passing through the state halls this session that would have attempted to address a portion of the problems at Maui Community Correctional Center (MCCC), has now changed from action to just another task force study.
On Maui there's a shortage of mental health workers and inadequate mental health facilities to deal with the growing numbers of mentally ill people who find themselves in jail. The state psychiatrist comes just twice a month. If someone's in crisis, he or she gets shipped to Oahu, either to the correctional center there or to the state hospital.
Senate Bill 2524 originally required all community correctional centers to set up separate mental health areas for prisoners with mental health issues. It would also have kept those with mental illness in quarters separated from the rest of the prison population. And the bill sought to end the practice of putting unruly, mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement.
Says the chair of the State Council on Mental Health, Ku'ulei Kilioa, "If you take anyone and put them in solitary confinement, if they don't go crazy, they should be locked up."
But in testimony before the legislature, state Attorney General Mark Bennett warned that if your job is to handle someone who is dangerous to others, and you can't confine them away from others, then you've got a problem; one that would open the state to costly litigation.
Beyond that, there were questions about cost and space. "This bill first asked for separate facilities to be established," Baker says. "That approach had lots of problems associated with it."
And so another feasibility study is being proposed. Another year gone by.
But baby steps are happening. The state's Adult Mental Health Department has a conditional release program that provides services to the mentally ill who are out of jail but still require psychological treatment. The idea is to keep as many people out of the State Hospital as possible, where treatment costs about $870 per day.
That program saved the state $10 million in three months alone, according to a 2008 legislative report. The program's staff consists of only nine forensic coordinators. Governor Linda Lingle has asked for 21 new positions and $662,250 for Public Safety Department mental health workers in her 2008 Supplemental Budget request.
This year legislators have much on their plate, much to consider and many stakeholders to satisfy. Being a lawmaker isn't an easy or super-lucrative job, but perhaps with a goal to study results instead of task force findings, more problems and more inefficiencies will be solved instead of simply pondered.
CORPORATE CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS
"We need change in Washington!" It's a popular rallying cry heard in the presidential primaries over and over again. But what does it really mean? For some, change means getting big money and corporate interests out of politics. The idea being that decisions would then be made on the merits of the issue, instead of how much big companies and professional lobbyists donate to a politician's campaign coffers.
This year's state legislators will hear two bills that address these issues head-on. The first, HB 661 would set up a system whereby candidates can access public money to run their campaign.
The next bill, SB 2455, was actually killed in the House of Representatives, but was then magically reborn as an amendment to Senate bill 2204. This proposed law changes the amount of money a corporation could give to a candidate from $1,000 to "unlimited."
HB 661, heard on March 11 by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and Labor, has been deferred until March 17. The bill's still alive, but it has been killed nine years in a row.
Bill Moyers, a popular Public Broadcasting System (PBS) journalist, states in a video promoting public campaign financing, "Today elections can be bought," and that special interest dollars are "choking democracy to death."
Representative Joe Bertram III (D, South Maui) surmises that people are soured on politics and one reason is that they see it as being unduly influenced by those with the money. "People need some sort of reform," he says. "People need hope, especially in the state with the lowest voter turnout in the nation. And Maui's Number One."
The Big Island County Council has voted seven to two to be the first pilot case in Hawai'i. But here the State Campaign Spending Commission regulates campaign spending, even at the county level. So passage of the state bill will decide if the county pilot program will fly or not.
It's widely expected that if the bill passes, it will already have been modified to allow full public funding only on the Big Island at the start.
Ironically, there is already $5.5 million in a state fund earmarked to help fund campaigns. It began in 1978 to allow for partial funding of campaigns.
Maui County Councilmember Gladys Baisa applied for partial public funding during her 2006 race. "I don't have any problems with it [the bill]," she says. "In the last election I went for public financing. I was a first-time candidate. What I raised, they matched."
But Korey Payne of Voter Owned Hawai'i says the partial funding option doesn't give most candidates a fair chance. Payne says that on the state level in 2002, just 10 percent of 400-plus candidates opted for the current partial funding option. He says that in 2006 the average winner spent $36,000 on his or her campaign, while the current system would have provided a mere $4,600.
Voter Owned Hawai'i asserts that this is one reason more people from different socioeconomic backgrounds don't go into public service, and why it's so hard for lawmakers to ignore special interests.
Opponents counter by saying the program actually constitutes a form of welfare. Said one legislative staffer of a Republican State Senator who requested anonymity, "Why would I want to pay for a candidate I don't even support?"
What's more, Barbara Wong, Executive Director of the state Campaign Spending Commission, has said that there are certain scenarios where the state's coffers wouldn't cover projected costs. Whether those scenarios will ever come to fruition is part of the current debate.
"At a county-level, people will see it [a difference in the system with publicly funded elections] and check-off the box on their income taxes more often," Representative Bertram says. "They'll be more inspired. We should just try it. So it fails… It might succeed."
Then there's SB 2455, which would eliminate the current $1,000 limit on corporate contributions. That bill failed, but the corporate contribution provision is now an amendment to SB 2204.
Maui Mayor Charmaine Tavares challenged the limit during her successful 2006 mayoral campaign and Maui Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza backed her. Cardoza ruled that corporations could donate directly to a candidate without limits. The state Attorney General's office agreed.
But the state Campaign Spending Commission cried foul and strenuously opposed SB 2455. And it's against SB 2204. In fact, 22 states have banned direct donations from corporations to candidates.
"The law is fine the way it is now and I think if SB 2204 were passed it would be like stepping into a time capsule and going back to the days of good ol' boy politics,"Representative Angus McKelvey (D, West Maui) said. At press time, the Legislature deferred the measure, which usually means it's dead, but considering that it's died before, it's hard to say for certain.
Our last bill's a bit sexier than campaign spending or prisoners' mental health. The Women's Caucus, a group of female lawmakers, introduced SB 1117 that would require schools receiving public funds to teach medically accurate information on abstinence AND contraception. That's right, sexual education.
There's the rub. In the last eight years, sex ed. has been taught with an emphasis on abstinence, per federal law. This has pleased many religious and conservative groups trying to get information about fornication out of public school.
Sylvia Frerking, Peer Education Teacher at King Kekauliki High School, says all public high schools have had to follow the same mandates. Sex ed. is now taught to kids in fifth, seventh and tenth grades, but students must have a signed waiver from their parents allowing their attendance. She says that about 99 percent of students attend the classes.
"Across the country, it's all abstinence-based education," she says. "The tide of education comes and goes. It's been very conservative for the last eight years. Not when like I was in school."
For most schools in the U.S., there aren't any places to get condoms in school or to talk about options if a high-school girl gets pregnant.
"Upcountry kids have a hard time," Frerking says. "They don't necessarily have access to get downtown to Planned Parenthood. And access could possibly prevent many teen pregnancies."
Still, she says that although kids are taught to wait, they are also taught about contraception, pregnancy, violence prevention, drugs and alcohol. One method of prevention involves discussing the top 10 things a boyfriend will say or do to convince his girlfriend to have sex.
"When we ask female students what they've heard, they mention every one of them [before seeing the list]," Frerking says. MTW
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