HCCC Inmate Released Amid COVID-19 Concerns Reoffends

April 7, 2020, 1:21 PM HST (Updated April 8, 2020, 7:29 AM)
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Michael Varize Jr.

At least one prisoner released from Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center as part of an effort to reduce the jail population during the COVID-19 pandemic has landed back in custody for criminal acts.

On March 25, 2020, the Public Defender’s Office filed a motion for the emergency and humanitarian release of Michael Varize Jr. due to the novel coronavirus spread. He had been taken into custody at the beginning of March for violating his probation in a Family Court case.

On March 31, Varize was granted supervised release. Three days later, he was arrested and charged with credit card fraud and was granted supervised release again by District Court Judge Margaret Masunaga.

Varize pleaded guilty back on Jan. 14, 2019, to a misdemeanor charge of abuse of family and household members. He was sentenced to two years probation with six months incarceration with credit for time served.

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Varize was released in October of 2019 and a proof of compliance hearing was set for February of 2020. According to court minutes, Varize failed to appear in court and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest.

In an effort to prevent loss of life and other public health risks, the State Office of the Public Defender filed petitions with the Hawai‘i Supreme Court on March 23, 2020, to release qualifying inmates across the state in an effort to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak in its overcrowded facilities. This action ultimately led to Varize getting out of jail early.

The Hawai‘i County Prosecutor’s Office objected to Varize’s release on March 31 and again on April 6.

In response to petitions filed by the State Office of the Public Defender (OPD) requesting more prisoner releases, the Supreme Court appointed a Special Master and ordered the OPD to identify specific defendants who fell into categories they were looking to mass release.

From March 2 to April 2, Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center (HCCC) reduced its inmate population by 59. There were 336 prisoners in the 226-bed facility.

Ann Datta, supervisor over Kona Public Defender’s Office, said HCCC is so overcrowded that they are not capable of doing social distancing.

“You have to balance the risk to individual in the jail and staff in the jail to the risk of reoffending,” Datta said. “People in the jail are very concerned and they feel like sitting ducks. It’s just a matter of time before somebody tests positive.”

Datta added those being released must have a verified address, be screened for symptoms before release, as well as undergo a 14-day quarantine.

“If they violate those terms and conditions, they could end up back in jail,” she said.

Kona’s OPD office shared a list of about 80 names of those inmates they felt met the qualifications for release. Those looked at for release are individuals who’ve committed lesser offenses: failure to appear, traffic offenses, minor bench warrants, trespass and some of the smaller property crimes.

Attorneys are also looking at felony probationers who are coming up on release. Hawai‘i County Prosecutor Mitch Roth said those considered will not include violent offenders, sex offenders or domestic violence offenders.

The county prosecutor’s office has agreed to the request of about 20 prisoners — the rest they have opposed.

“What people need to realize (is) that there are cases judges are releasing to over our objection and cases we’re agreeing,” Roth said.

Dale Ross, First Deputy Prosecutor, said attorneys have been filing individual motions in several cases. After completing their review of cases submitted by OPD, Ross added, the prosecutor’s office has agreed to suspend intermittent sentences for now.

For those cases to which the prosecutor’s office objects, hearings are conducted before the respective court and a decision is made to release or not release.

“I think if the goal is to prevent an infectious disease in the jail, it doesn’t help to have repeat offenders who are violating the stay-at-home orders to cycle in and out of the jail repeatedly,” Ross said.

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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