Jail Populations Expected to Continue Decline Through June

May 16, 2020, 10:39 AM HST (Updated May 16, 2020, 10:39 AM)
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Inmate reduction in Hawai‘i’s jails is expected to continue through June as all of the state’s facilities move toward or under design capacity.

For the past two months, various county and state departments have been working with The Hawai‘i Supreme Court in releasing prisoners from the overcrowded correctional centers in an effort to avoid an outbreak of COVID-19. As of May 15, 802 inmates have been released.

Courtesy of Hawai’i Public Safety Department

Retired Judge Dan Foley was appointed as Special Master in response to the State Office of the Public Defender’s request to release more prisoners due to the public health crisis. The Special Master has been working with OPD along with county prosecutors, county police departments, the Public Safety Department’s Intake Services Center Division and Hawai‘i State Judiciary.

On May 15, Foley filed his fourth summary report, which indicates that reduction in inmate population was achieved by police departments not issuing certain bench warrants, prosecutors not filing new charges for less serious offenses, and utilization of the practice of no cash bail for many who have been charged. The public defender’s office also filed motions for early release on a number of prisoners, which was ultimately granted by the courts.

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“This effort has essentially been exhausted as of April 28,” the report states.

In the state’s continued goal to reduce inmate populations to facility capacity, the report states, they are now focused on Hawai‘i Paroling Authority’s review of inmates at correctional centers for early release, as well as granting parole in the normal course.

HPA is scheduled to consider 334 inmates for release this month, and 388 for June. Since April 24, HPA has granted the release of 75 inmates from Hawaiʻi’s correctional centers and facilities, which includes five medical releases.

“Among those inmates being reviewed, and being given priority for early release, are those at increased risk of serious illness from COVID-19,” according to the Special Master’s report.

If the hold on serving bench warrants and filing for less serious offenses continue, the report states, Hawai‘i’s correctional centers and facilities should continue to drop through June.

Community organizations continue to work with the Special Master and OPD in identifying and securing housing and cellphones for inmates released from correctional centers who are without a place to stay.

Despite the success in reducing prisoner count at the jails, lawmakers expressed concern about the time of criminals being released into the public. On May 15, the House Finance Committee amended a supplementary funding bill for the judiciary to include a clause, requiring detailed information on inmates who are being released from Hawaiʻi’s correctional centers to reduce crowding and limit inmates’ exposure to COVID-19.

House Speaker Scott K. Saiki said there is growing concern that the Judiciary has now moved from releasing nonviolent offenders to releasing violent offenders.

“The public expects that the Judiciary will make certain that those released do not become susceptible to criminal activity and homelessness,” Saiki said. “Unfortunately, that’s not occurred in every case. As a result, the Legislature is asking the Judiciary to provide reports on the inmates that they are releasing in the interest of public health and safety.”

On April 8, Saiki and 33 other representatives sent a letter to Foley expressing strong opposition to the release of inmates. The letter states that in addition to public safety concerns, some released inmates have nowhere to go and became homeless. This places a burden on homeless services providers and forces out the current vulnerable residents of those facilities.

“The Judiciary, like the Legislature, has a prevailing duty to protect the health and safety of all Hawaiʻi residents. This mistimed release of inmates will violate this duty,” according to the letter.

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