ACLU Legislative Wrap Up 2021

The Hawai'i legislative session ended on Friday, April 30, after months of mobilization and a renewed commitment to protect our civil liberties. Despite the challenges of the last year, the ACLU of Hawai'i has continually been on the front lines demanding data, resources, and policies that free our loved ones from the grip of the carceral system, decriminalize poverty, and fundamentally reimagine policing and public safety. Our current system simply keeps families separated while failing to make us safer. Supporting other advocates, we also made important strides in granting access to abortion services and greater access to voting.

None of this would have been possible without you. Community members and allies across the islands showed up virtually, called, emailed, spoke out, and submitted hundreds of pieces of testimony in support of policies that build accountability and safety in Hawai'i.

Let's highlight some big wins and tough losses:

With your help, and that of advocates and activists across Hawai'i, we pushed important criminal legal reform bills all the way to conference week, a tumultuous time during a legislative session where House and Senate members debate the various drafts of each bill and try to reach an agreement. We had some victories, some tough losses, and we move forward with a renewed commitment to ensure that justice becomes a reality for all. 

Here is some of what happened.

Breonna's Law – The fight continues
S.B. 726
, named in honor of Breonna Taylor, who was murdered by police during a no-knock raid at her home, would have required police officers serving a warrant to announce themselves and wait thirty seconds before entry into a home. It also would have required officers to serve warrants in uniform and wear and use a body-worn video camera. Despite over 220 pieces of testimony in support of the bill and nine pieces of testimony in opposition, and despite the bill making it successfully through the conference, at the last moment, the House used a rare procedure and voted to "recommit" S.B. 726 to conference committee, ending its chance to pass this session. By stopping Breonna's Law, the House also prevented any police reform measures from passing this year.

Funding for prison oversight and no new jail – win!

S.B. 664
, which began as a bad vehicle to support a new jail, instead became a good bill to appropriate long overdue funds for the Hawai'i Correctional System Oversight Commission. Even though the statute that created the Oversight Commission authorized a paid oversight coordinator to aid the commissioners – a position that should have started on Sunday, December 1, 2019 – the funding was never released. The Oversight Commission has lacked basic funding for staff and resources for too long, and this bill provides a chance to address that and support investments in more effective, proven initiatives such as safety improvements for people who are incarcerated, community-based solutions, and alternatives to incarceration. Finally, providing this funding only happened because all of you wrote and called your legislators and demanded the change. The bill is now on its way to Governor Ige's desk, and he has publicly said he will sign it.

Pressuring the Department of Public Safety on reentry services – win!

Senate Concurrent Resolution 108
calls on the Hawaiʻi Department of Public Safety (PSD) to comply with its statutory obligations to provide effective and comprehensive reentry planning and issue civil identification documents to those exiting correctional facilities. The resolution further calls upon PSD to increase investment in reentry programs – or, at least maintain current funding levels for reentry programs – and to identify and work to dismantle existing barriers to successful reentry. The resolution was adopted by the legislature and we'll be working to make sure PSD abides by it.

Equal access to abortion – win!

H.B. 576
allows qualified licensed advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) to provide early in-clinic abortion care. Hawaii's previous law required early in-clinic abortions to be provided by a physician. This put barriers in the path of people who wanted to terminate their pregnancy, especially for people in the most rural and isolated parts of Hawai'i. With ACLU supporting Planned Parenthood, this bill passed early enough in the legislative session that Governor Ige has already signed it into law.

Civil asset forfeiture and bail reform – The fight continues…

Hawaii's current civil asset forfeiture law is based on the legal fiction that property can be guilty. It's as absurd as it sounds. S.B. 294 would have reformed Hawaii's civil asset forfeiture law by prohibiting forfeiture except in cases where the property owner has been convicted of a crime. It made it to the conference committee but failed when House members refused to agree to a version of the bill they themselves previously supported.
Pretrial incarceration is one of the major drivers of overcrowding in Hawaii's jails. About one-third of all people in Hawaii's correctional facilities and more than half of those housed at the Oahu Community Correctional Center have not been convicted of any crime and are merely awaiting trial, most often because they cannot afford the amount of bail set in their case. This bill, S.B. 1260, while still not going nearly far enough, would have at least provided some useful reforms. But, like civil asset forfeiture reform, it died in the conference committee.

Automatic voter registration – win!

S.B. 159
will mean that eligible people will automatically be registered to vote or update voter information when they apply for or renew a state identification card or driver's license, with the option to decline registration. Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy and a fundamental right upon which all our civil liberties rest. Supporting Common Cause in its work on this bill, we were proud to be part of an effort to make sure that Hawai'i continues to increase access to voting while far too many states are moving in the opposite direction. This bill is on its way to Governor Ige's desk.

As we move forward, our continued hope for a better future comes from you – community members who consistently support measures that advance civil liberties and civil rights, and go above and beyond in your advocacy. We saw collective and creative action from our partners, friends, advocates, and champion legislators who pushed for reforms for everything from policing to unemployment, and healthcare expansion. Hundreds attended our virtual Lobby Week this past March, and hundreds more signed petitions contacted lawmakers and policymakers and spoke out in the community to make their voices heard on all of these critical issues.
Our fight is not over. Despite the challenges that the 2021 Hawai'i legislative session has presented, we will continue our efforts to ensure a more just future for all.

Mahalo nui loa for your continued support and advocacy,

ACLU 2021 Legislative Agenda

The 2021 legislative session began January 20th. Virtual session opens up possibilities for advocates like you to participate in hearings from anywhere in the state, and we want your voice to be heard. Join us as we call for important policy changes to protect civil rights and create a better future for Hawaiʻi.

SMART JUSTICE – It’s time to dismantle our system of mass incarceration that tears families apart and makes us less safe. This session, we will be asking lawmakers to hold the Public Safety Department accountable for its failure to provide comprehensive reentry planning services, which it is required to do by law. We will demand a moratorium on plans for a costly new jail, and ask lawmakers to consider ways to address public health matters like substance use that do not involve putting people behind bars.

REIMAGINING POLICING – Hawai‘i is not insulated from the systemic racism in policing that has exploded into the national consciousness on the continent, particularly as it impacts Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and Black communities. This session we will ask lawmakers to create new ways to allow victims of police brutality to hold officers accountable. We will support demilitarizing law enforcement and increasing transparency in arrests and prosecution.

DECRIMINALIZING POVERTY – For those experiencing houselessness, the simple act of resting your head at night is punished with hefty fines and even criminal penalties. Jails and prisons are epicenters of the largest COVID-19 clusters in Hawaiʻi, and many people are incarcerated simply because they cannot afford cash bail. There is a better way. This session, we will push to reform our cash bail system. We will oppose any funding cuts to social services, which are crucial in getting families through this economic crisis, and we will support the decriminalization of quality-of-life offenses.


February 6th                Virtual Advocacy Training, register here.

March 15th – 19th        ACLU of Hawaiʻi Week of Action


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