Hawaii Establishes New Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

By CN Staff

HONOLULU — The Hawaii Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) is aiming to offer hope for a new beginning for those incarcerated in Hawaii correctional facilities—and for its nearly 2,700 employees.

In 2022, Governor David Ige signed into law House Bill 2171, which became Act 278, re-establishing the Hawaii Department of Public Safety (PSD) as the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and transferring law enforcement functions to the new Department of Law Enforcement (DLE) effective Monday, Jan. 1, 2024. SLH2022 Act 278.pdf (hawaii.gov)

“The motto for our department is ‘He Au Hou,’ which means ‘a new era,’” said Tommy Johnson, director of the new department, who previously served as director of the public safety department after being appointed by Governor Josh Green and confirmed by the Senate. “We’re able to focus our full attention, resources, and energy on rehabilitation and restoration to support those in our custody and care. We envisioned this over two years ago and it’s exciting to see this coming to fruition. We may not see changes occur overnight. We know there is always room for improvement, but I’m confident we’re headed in the right direction.”

Growing up in a needy single-parent household with seven other siblings in North Philadelphia, Johnson recognizes how support can make a difference in people’s lives. He also understands the gravity of his department’s mission: To provide a secure correctional environment for comprehensive rehabilitative, holistic, and culturally appropriate re-entry services to reduce recidivism and enhance the safety and security of communities across the state.

While serving as a Hawaii youth corrections officer earlier in his career, Johnson said he saw many youths who came from unstable homes with parents serving time. He said he is disheartened when he sees those youths now incarcerated as adults who now have children of their own.

“We are responsible for providing educational opportunities, job training, and programs to help those in our custody successfully be reintegrated back into our community and break the cycle of reincarceration for the inmates and stop generational incarceration,” Johnson added. “Every individual who comes to us has a unique story. They may have had a rough childhood or may have been surrounded by negative influences, but we need to give them the tools, training and guidance that enable them to begin an exciting, new chapter in their lives.”

Johnson noted that 95% of those incarcerated eventually earn the opportunity to re-enter the community, which is why it is vital to adopt a rehabilitative and restorative approach, instead of a punitive model. This approach also creates safer communities.

“We can and must work together to find solutions to the physical challenges so that our department can realize its fullest potential to give inmates the best possible opportunities for a better life,” he remarked.

Johnson also said his team welcomes the opportunity to focus on corrections and rehabilitation but acknowledged that their optimism has been tempered by the challenges and constraints of operating in the state’s aging and inefficiently constructed correctional facilities.

“The inability to remedy chronic safety or security concerns as a result of deferred maintenance presents constant distractions to the important transformational work that takes place for those in the correctional facilities and hinders our ability to implement or expand supportive programs,” he said. “Everyone benefits from a better correctional system.”

For more information, visit the new Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation website at: https://dcr.hawaii.gov.