In Hawaii, a person convicted of a felony faces prison time of more than one year and up to life. Hawaii has a fairly unique sentencing and parole system in which the paroling authority (rather than the sentencing judge) will largely determine how long the offender will remain behind bars.
This article will discuss felony sentencing and parole in Hawaii. For information on misdemeanors, check out Hawaii Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences.
Hawaii is among the majority of states that use "indeterminate sentencing," where a judge sets a maximum sentence but a parole board determines an offender's actual release date. Other states use a system of "determinate sentencing," in which the judge announces a set term of imprisonment and the offender generally spends 60 to 85% of that time behind bars.
Under Hawaii's sentencing system, the parole authority largely determines how long an offender will remain in prison. The sentencing judge plays a more limited role in handing down one of five maximum prison sentences:
Here are some examples of felony offense levels:
Some crimes carry a mandatory minimum sentence term as well. But, if not, the parole authority establishes the minimum term using parole guidelines. (More on parole below.) Mandatory minimums apply to felonies involving firearms, vulnerable victims, and drug trafficking crimes, to name a few.
Hawaii's laws also impose enhanced sentences (called extended terms) for certain hate crimes, hit-and-run offenses, persistent felony offenders, and repeat violent and sexual offenders. If an extended-term applies, the judge must order a maximum term that is one level higher than for the current offense (for example, a Class B felony would bump up to a Class A felony).
When imposing a felony sentence, judges can order one or more of the following:
Generally, a judge will hand down a sentence that includes a term of imprisonment and then either "execute or stay" the prison sentence. Executing the sentence means the offender will go to prison. Staying a sentence means the judge will suspend the prison sentence and give the offender a chance to serve the sentence in the community on probation. Only certain offenders are eligible for probation. For instance, Hawaii's laws generally prohibit probation for class A felonies, repeat offenders, and felony firearm offenders.
When a judge stays a prison sentence, the judge conditions the stay (or suspension) on the offender's agreement to abide by probation terms. Basically, the prison sentence hangs over the offender's head as an incentive to comply with probation.
Probation conditions might include remaining crime-free, serving a jail sentence, completing community service hours, abstaining from alcohol or drugs, maintaining employment, attending school, treatment, or counseling, or being placed on electronic monitoring or home confinement.
Felony probation can last four to ten years depending on the offense level. If the offender successfully completes probation, the sentence is also complete. A judge may grant early discharge from probation for good behavior. Violations of probation, however, can result in additional probation conditions or revocation. Upon revoking probation, the judge ends the stay and executes the sentence (that is, imposes the original prison term).
If the judge orders the sentence executed (either at the initial sentencing or after revoking probation), the offender will start serving the prison sentence. The amount of time the offender spends in prison will depend on the maximum sentence imposed by the judge, eligibility for parole, and decisions of the parole authority.
Hawaii's parole authority plays a substantial role in felony sentencing. In many cases, this board will determine an inmate's earliest possible parole date, whether to grant or deny parole release, and whether to discharge or revoke parole.
Within a few months of being sent to prison, the parole authority will schedule a hearing to determine the inmate's minimum sentencing term (unless the offense carried a mandatory minimum). This minimum sentence determines the inmate's "tentative parole date" (TPD)—the earliest date the offender is eligible for parole.
To determine the minimum sentence, the parole authority uses guidelines that place an inmate in one of three punishment levels based on factors such as the severity of the offense, harm caused, and an inmate's criminal history. Based on the punishment level (I, II, or III) and the inmate's maximum sentence for the current offense, the guidelines provide a minimum sentencing range. For instance, an offender who receives a 20-year maximum sentence faces a minimum sentence between:
The parole authority can impose a minimum sentence anywhere within the range. An inmate may later petition for an earlier release date (or TPD) if the circumstances warrant.
A few months prior to an inmate's TPD, the parole authority schedules a release hearing. The authority will hear from the inmate and review their case records, release plans, and other factors to determine if they can successfully live in the community. The parole authority may grant, defer, or deny parole. As in other states, parole is a privilege, not a right.
Parole denied. If denied, the inmate must wait at least one year to reapply for parole.
Parole deferred. Deferral might occur if the inmate provides incomplete information to the board or is waiting for acceptance in an outside reentry program.
Parole granted. If granted parole, the parolee must abide by the conditions of parole: staying out of trouble, reporting to parole officers, actively seeking or retaining employment, and obeying curfew. The parolee remains under parole supervision for at least five years and up to the maximum term. Every five years, the parole authority considers the parolee for early discharge. Violation of conditions can result in intermediate sanctions (such as home detention, intensive supervision, or treatment) or revocation (return to prison).
If you're charged with a felony, contact a criminal defense lawyer right away. Felonies carry stiff penalties in Hawaii, and even if you don't spend much time behind bars, a felony record can follow you forever. A lawyer can help you understand the criminal justice process, evaluate your options, defend your rights, and explain the consequences of a conviction.