Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s pledge to bring home 1,900 Hawaii inmates in mainland prisons had lawmakers worried about how they would pay for the new prison space required.

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But Tuesday, the new Director of Public Safety, Jodie Maesaka-Hirata, said the plan includes releasing hundreds, perhaps up to 1,000. prisoners into community programs.“We want to start bringing the offenders home so we can transition them with programs that can assist them being successful while they are out there,” Maesaka-Hirata said.She told lawmakers that a third of the 1,900 men now serving time in Arizona and several hundred others in Hawaii prisons have been classified as safe for community confinement, outside of prison.She said the state has its own furlough programs as well as clean and sober homes and transitional housing programs which could provide housing and programs for released offenders. She said there are some immediate vacancies and with increase state funding, many of the programs could be expanded.The approach was applauded by prison reform advocate Kat Brady. “What she's talking about is programs that exist in the community that could be expanded,” Brady said. “So it would be moving money from incarceration into community programs.”The present challenge is that there are far too few community programs to accommodate the hundreds of inmates that may qualify for them.“That's the biggest problem,” said Alan Johnson, chief executive officer of Hina Mauka, a substance abuse treatment facility in Kaneohe. “If you are talking about bringing back hundreds and hundreds of offenders there's programs out there for 50 to 100 people, and that's it.”Hina Mauka was working on a proposal for a 500- to 800-bed transition facility to be built on Hawaiian Homelands in Kalaeloa. The project would combine minimum security housing with rehabilitation programs and have business tenants who would provide training and jobs for offenders in a 2- to 4-year program. The project depended on foundation grants, which Johnson said dried up in the recession.

He said he is ready to revive the proposal if the state agreed to help pay for start-up and construction costs.Lawmakers who heard the public safety director’s plans said they want reassurances about the impact on public safety and the price of community placements verses continued housing on the mainland.“The first thing that jumps out is where, when, the cost,” said Kauai Rep. James Tokioka, a Democrat on the House Finance Committee.Maesaka-Hirata said the releases would be carefully considered.“We are not going to do a mass release without methodically going through their institutional files, their behaviors and reviewing whether or not they are appropriate to be in the community,” she said.