Hawai‘i Judiciary Frees 37% of Prison Population in Two Months

May 3, 2020, 11:02 AM HST (Updated May 4, 2020, 10:19 AM)
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The state judicial system has reduced jail populations across Hawai‘i by 37% over the last two months in response to threats of the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the close confines of prisons.

Prison population reductions are charted on the graph below for the time period spanning March 2 to May 1, 2020.

Jail Population ReportPopulation Decrease
Facility  (Operational Capacity)2-Mar1-May
HCCC      (226)395234-161
KCCC      (128)14385-58
MCCC     (301)450281-169
OCCC     (954)1201779-422
TOTAL21891379-810

The reductions are due to “the huge, up-front diversion efforts made by county police departments, PSD’s Intake Services Center Division and the State Judiciary,” according to a Department of Public Safety press release.

Jake Branch

More recent and additional reductions are related to collaborative efforts of the state public defender’s office, county prosecutors, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court and the Supreme Court-appointed Special Master, Judge Dan Foley, the release continued.

However, prosecutors have done some objecting in recent weeks to the granting of supervised release to habitual criminals and those charged with serious offenses — though not to much avail.

Law enforcement officials initially said no prisoner convicted of domestic violence, sexual assault, burglary, robbery or any other similarly serious crimes would be released from custody. It appears, however, that policy has changed.

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Jake Branch appeared in 3rd Circuit Court in April for an arraignment and plea on charges related to residential burglaries in South Kohala and failing to obey officers’ commands. During the discussion of bail, the judge decided to allow the 35-year-old supervised release.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Chase Murray, who was present at the hearing, said he was surprised by the decision, as Branch was already pending trial on two separate cases. During the hearing, Murray argued Branch was a flight risk, a danger to the community and asked the judge to maintain bail.

James Bonham

James Bonham, 66, was taken into custody on April 28 following a shooting incident in Captain Cook that left his 45-year-son, Joshua Bonham, dead.

Bonham was officially charged with 2nd Degree Murder on April 30 and was held on $50,000 bail, then subsequently granted supervised release. The decision by the judge was made despite the prosecutor’s objections.

The state has said the rationale behind its overarching philosophy of releasing prisoners to slow the spread of coronavirus isn’t only to protect prison populations, but also to protect prison employees and their families.

Hawai‘i County Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder was vocal in his disapproval of this strategy in early April, back when the plan was to release around 100 prisoners from the Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center. The number of prisoners released from HCCC as of May 1 was 161.

“I oppose any release of inmates from HCCC,” said Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder, who represents Puna. “Placing (these) inmates into our community is outright dangerous. Our police force is taxed and people are scared. This move just adds fuel to the fire, especially in Puna.”

Big Island residents have also voiced their disapproval with the Judiciary’s decisions.

“How would it prevent them from interacting or from spreading it? They’re just going to go out and live with other people,” Monica, a mother in Puna who asked her last name be withheld for safety purposes, told Big Island Now in April. “I just don’t see enough reasoning behind (releasing them) to warrant doing it. I think it should just stay the way it is in regards to the legal system and who we’ve chosen to put behind bars.”

As of May 1, there had been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 inside any prison in Hawai‘i.

Max Dible
Max Dible is the News Director for both Big Island Now and Kauai Now. He also serves as News Director for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter, and radio talk show personality covering college athletics in Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing, and his work as a sports columnist.

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