Jail Populations Reduce Statewide in Effort to Avoid Viral Breakout

March 27, 2020, 5:51 PM HST (Updated March 28, 2020, 7:33 AM)
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Prisoners have been freed from jail populations across the state in an effort to avoid a breakout of the novel coronavirus among inmates in over-crowded facilities.

On Friday, the Hawai‘i State Department of Public Safety confirmed it has released 356 of its 2,245 incarcerated individuals. As of Friday, there are no inmates who have met the “persons under investigation” criteria for COVID-19.

“The Department of Public Safety is well aware of the risks of over-population and crowding in our jails, especially during this pandemic,” DPS stated in a press release. “We are taking proactive measures with our criminal justice partners, including the Office of the Attorney General, the judiciary, county prosecutors, Office of the Public Defender and the Hawai‘i Paroling Authority to find ways to temporarily reduce the number of people in our prisons and jails, while keeping the overall safety of the community our top priority.”

Courtesy of the Department of Public Safety

Hawai‘i Paroling Authority is also identifying cases statewide that are approved for parole and pending a release date set by the HPA chair. HPA is working to expedite the verification process for an inmate’s approved release.

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Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center has reduced its inmate population by 62, dropping the overall number to 356. The 200-bed facility maintains a population of double that number on a regular basis.

To assist the judiciary in their decision-making process on who to release, DPS submitted a list of those prisoners incarcerated as pre-trial and sentenced misdemeanants, as well as those who are incarcerated as felony probationers.

Hawai‘i County Prosecutor Mitch Roth said his office has been working with the state and trying to be proactive on the issue.

“We’ve been looking at some of the lesser offenses: failure to appear, traffic offenses, minor bench warrants, trespass and some of the smaller property crimes,” Roth said.

The discussion has now moved to looking at felony probationers who are coming up on release. Roth said those considered will not include violent offenders, sex offenders or domestic violence offenders.

“For a prosecutor, this is not an easy decision,” Roth added. “It’s probably one of the most difficult decisions we have to make. At the end of the day, it’s about saving lives, but we have to make sure we’re keeping people safe as well.”

Roth said they are also considering offenders who serve time over the weekends, as the court has already deemed them not dangerous.

“Those are the people who are really the scariest as they’re the ones most likely to infect the population,” he said.

The county prosecutor added that they are looking at moving incarceration dates to July.

The State Office of the Public Defender filed a motion in the Supreme Court on March 24, 2020, requesting Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald consider an order designed to “commute or suspend jail sentences currently being served by inmates in the community correctional centers across the state of Hawai‘i, either as a condition of felony probation or because of an imposed sentence received upon conviction of a misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor.”

This order was filed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and Gov. David Ige’s mandated statewide stay-at-home order to help slow the spread of the virus.

“It is inevitable that the virus will spread into the jails and prison facilities and, when that happens, the health and well-being of inmates and staff members will be at tremendous risk,” the OPD order states.

OPD’s request states it is looking at two inmate categories for release:

  • Inmates serving jail sentences as a condition of felony probation
  • Inmates serving District Court sentences, having been convicted of either a misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor

OPD states the individuals in the second category have release dates in the reasonably near future. These individuals are typically convicted of criminal trespass, shoplifting, disorderly conduct, harassment, etc.

“These inmates in both categories represent low- to medium-risk defendants whose release in this restricted access climate would not compromise public safety in a significant way,” OPD states. “And, of course, their release would promote public health.”

The Office of the Attorney General filed a response to the order, indicating the temporary release or suspension of jail sentences is of great risk and concern.

“The individual may pose a danger to the victim, other persons or the community,” the court document states. “Additionally, the individual may flee and not return to appear as directed by the court to serve the suspended jail sentence.”

The AG’s office reiterated its efforts to reduce the jail population and its collaborative efforts made with the DPS as well as the judiciary.

“While the Attorney General has these concerns, the COVID-19 pandemic presents a public health emergency. That warrants preemptive and protective actions to provide for the health, safety and welfare of the people of the state, including the jail population,” the AG’s response states.

Hawai‘i County Prosecutor’s Office also responded to OPD’s order. First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Dale Ross said deputy prosecutors are already reviewing cases requesting to be released from custody due to the pandemic.

“OPA is concerned that wide sweeping release of offenders on probation would easily overwhelm the probation work staff, resulting in a number of unsupervised offenders being released into the community,” Ross said. “During an unprecedented health crisis, with very little support to follow a stay-at-home order in the coming weeks.”

The Supreme Court of the State of Hawaii responded to OPD’s order and asked that the Office of the Public Defender provide a list of inmates to to DPS and all parties to the case by 4 p.m. on March 30 that meet the following criteria:

  • Inmates serving a sentence not exceeding 18 months as a condition of felony probation.
  • Inmates serving sentences for misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor convictions.
  • All pretrial detainees charged with a petty misdemeanor or a misdemeanor offense.

Those excluded from the list are inmates serving time for a sexual assault conviction; or any felony offenses in the first or second degree; those convicted of abuse of family or household member; violation of a temporary restraining order; violation of an order for protection.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat. Tiffany is an award-winning journalist, receiving recognition from the Utah-Idaho-Spokane Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists. Tiffany grew up on the Big Island and is passionate about telling the community’s stories.

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