A truncated version of this piece was offered to both Civil Beat and Honolulu Star-Advertiser for publication. Both politely declined, unsurprisingly. Both Civil Beat and the Star-Advertiser have relationships with some of the news networks of which I am critical here.
On May 3, after a long day of floor debates and votes, the Hawaii Legislature concluded the majority of their business for the 2022 session. Among the hundreds of bills transmitted to Governor Ige for consideration was House Bill 1567 Relating to Criminal Pretrial Reform.
The bill “eliminates the use of monetary bail and requires defendants to be released on their own recognizance for certain nonviolent offenses, subject to certain exclusions and requires the Department of Public Safety to take steps to provide video conferencing to a defendant who chooses to participate in a bail report interview via videoconference.”
Whatever your opinion on bail reform might be, it is critically important that our news media provide us with accurate information about important issues such as this one.
The television networks that published a story on HB1567 made a terrible hash of it. Not only did they provide little expert commentary from either side of the debate, but even worse their stories were incredibly one-sided.
Hawaii News Now
Hawaii News Now quotes a retired HPD officer and Hawaii’s Speaker of the House, Scott Saiki. While the retired HPD officer could arguably be considered an expert opposed to the bill, no such “balance” was given in support of the bill. Saiki simply pleaded that “offenders will still be held accountable.” Which is true.
The bill doesn’t affect the prosecution of crimes, but rather says simply that some defendants won’t be held in pre-trial detention.
KHON’s story seemed to focus largely on the prosecution of shoplifters with quotes from the President of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, who called it a “win for criminals.” No pandering for fear-mongering there. KHON also quoted Mayor Blangiardi who, from his quote, I’m not sure understands the bill at all. He said, “I am actually appalled that — that got approved by such an overwhelming majority… making it even that much more difficult to enforce.” Honestly, I’m not sure what he means.
Additionally, Senator Karl Rhoads, who Chairs the Senate Committee on Judiciary, was quoted in support of the bill, at the very of the article, while the creator of the Facebook page “Stolen Stuff Hawaii” was also quoted, though I’m not sure how creating a Facebook page makes him any kind of expert on criminal justice.
They also shared a link to comment on the bill on the Governor’s website, but nowhere in the KHON story do they actually provide the bill number, making it impossible for the public to provide comments to the Governor. And again, the story is terribly lopsided in opposition to the bill.
Worst of all was KITV’s story, “Stolen Stuff Hawaii Launches Petition Urging Gov. Ige to Veto the Bail Reform Bill.” The story quotes no one other than Kitchens, who called it a “get out of jail free card.” There is just one sentence near the end of the article that presents an opposing view, as if in passing.
These stories are prime examples of why I stopped years ago watching local network news. They provide little context and clearly make virtually no effort to provide balanced and informative coverage.
Compare these television stories to those published by Civil Beat and the Star-Advertiser, each of which provided more substantial, informative, and balanced coverage of the issue, with quotes from experts on both sides and more details about the bill itself.
What These Stories Left Out
A quick Google search provided the top result from the ACLU’s page on Bail Reform, which says this:
After an arrest — wrongful or not — a person’s ability to leave jail and return home to fight the charges typically depends on access to money. That’s because, in virtually all jurisdictions, people are required to pay cash bail in order to secure their freedom. Originally, bail was designed to ensure people return to court to face charges against them. Now we know that simple solutions like court reminders often can achieve that purpose. And, the money bail system has morphed into one that perpetuates widespread wealth-based incarceration. The pretrial incarceration caused by unaffordable bail is the single greatest driver of convictions, and is responsible for the ballooning of our nation’s jail and prison populations.
Poorer Americans and people of color often can’t afford to come up with money for bail, leaving them incarcerated in jail awaiting trial, sometimes for months or even years. Meanwhile, wealthy people accused of the same crime can buy their freedom and return home.
Because I’ve been following this issue for a few years now, I also know the ACLU of Hawaii published the report “Hawaii’s Accused Face an Unequal Bail System”.
Lots of Experts Support Substantial Bail Reform
If the ACLU isn’t your particular bag (though I wonder why it wouldn’t be), there are significant reports from governmental and non-partisan entities that have called for the elimination of cash bail. Or at least its significant reworking.
Let’s start with the State Judiciary’s testimony in support of HB1567. The Judiciary testified supporting the intent saying, “any pretrial bail reform should be tailored to the presumption of innocence, ensuring the appearance of the defendant, minimizing the risk of danger to the community, and ensuring the equal treatment of individuals regardless of race, wealth, or social class. The proposed legislation accomplishes these goals.”
Further, a task force convened in accordance with House Concurrent Resolution 85 HD2 SD1 (2016), said:
Last year, the Legislature created a task force to study pretrial procedures, including bail reform (HCR 134 (2017)). We do not know what that task force will recommend, but reducing the pretrial population by just 50% could save the State more than $45,000 per day, or $16 million per year. Reducing the number of pretrial detainees by 50% would also mean that the State would need about 250 fewer beds at the new jail, which would save hundreds of millions of dollars in construction costs, not to mention millions of dollars more in savings from reduced maintenance and operating costs over the life of the new jail.
And because it’s referenced in the above report, here’s what the HCR 134 (2017) task force said about bail reform:
The use of money bail as a means of managing a defendant’s risk is flawed as the setting of money bail alone does not correlate with a defendant’s risks of non-appearance, danger, or recidivism. While there may be some correlation between a defendant’s incentive to return to court if he or she may face a financial consequence via the forfeiture of bail posted, there is virtually no correlation between the setting of a particular bail amount and whether them defendant will commit further crime or engage in violent behavior when released from custody. Thus, money bail is a poor method of assessing and managing a defendant’s risks.
All of these I found in a matter of 30 minutes to an hour. While I admit to being previously familiar with most of these reports, I suspect a halfway decent journalist could have found these in not much more time than it took me.
Conclusion: It’s Time for Don Quixote
But much like the police and prosecutors, our local news media works for the owner-class and so takes a hard line on crime, without a factual basis in reality that doing so actually reduces crime. Or better yet, seeks to correct the root causes of crime. Which is almost always poverty.
A well-informed and educated electorate is crucially important to a well-functioning democracy. Perhaps now more than ever, or certainly in my lifetime, we need the news media to take this responsibility seriously. They must stop pandering to demographic sweeps and tailoring coverage to appease advertisers. The existence of the American Republic may very well be at stake.
Because I am a lover of both The West Wing and The Newsroom, I can’t help but end with a quote from the first episode of the Newsroom:
There’s nothing more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate. When there’s no information, or much worse wrong information, it can lead to calamitous decisions and clobber any attempt at vigorous debate.