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30 HCCC Pretrial Misdemeanor Inmates to be Released

August 26, 2020, 4:40 PM HST
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Keahuolu Courthouse. PC: Hawai‘i State Judiciary.

Thirty pretrial misdemeanor inmates at Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center (HCCC) were scheduled to be released today.

A Hawai‘i Supreme Court order filed Monday mandated that all pretrial petty misdemeanor and misdemeanor prisoners be released in an effort to avoid an outbreak of COVID-19 after a cluster was identified at O‘ahu Community Correctional Center earlier this month.

First Deputy Prosecutor Dale Ross said the Hawai‘i County Office of the Prosecuting Attorney is concerned about approximately 11 individuals in this expedited release who are in the process of a mental evaluation. Those let out, she explained, will not have mental health services or support.

The county prosecutor’s office and the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) are also sifting through the list of felony inmates at HCCC to determine who might be eligible for release.

According to the order, inmates convicted for sexual assault or attempted sexual assault don’t qualify for release. Anyone charged with the following crimes also does not qualify for release: abuse of family or household members, violation of a temporary restraining order, violation of an order for protection, violation of a restraining or injunction, or any other crime in family court.

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“The order requires the potential mass release of 172 inmates who include felony probation violators, pretrial felons and sentenced felons, some of who were being held because their surety was discharged, some of who are accused or have been found guilty of serious drug offenses and in possession of illegal firearms and are repeat offenders,” stated Ross Tuesday in an email to Big Island Now. “All of the pretrial felony inmates are being held for a reason.”

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The prosecutor’s office had to file oppositions against any of the proposed inmates for release by 4 p.m. Wednesday. Those cases they oppose will be reviewed individually and the presiding judge will make the final determination for release.

The prosecutor’s office already sees grounds for opposing the release of many of the defendants listed, including the fact that some of the offenders listed have detainers for other jurisdictions, while others shouldn’t have been on the list because of the nature of the charges, Ross said.

“We are very disturbed by the presumed release of felons in possession of illegal firearms and repeat offenders into the community at a time when, because of the pandemic, supervision services of probation and intake services are curtailed, and community resources like treatment centers have also been affected,” stated Prosecutor Elect Kelden Waltjen.

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Ann Datta, supervisor over the OPD Kona office, appreciated the work of Hawai‘i’s top court to address this problem. She also expressed concern over a larger crisis looming if inmates weren’t released.

“The bigger threat is overwhelming Hilo Medical Center if (COVID-19) spreads like wildlife in the jail, like it did on O‘ahu,” Datta said. “People may be prevented health care if it’s overloaded.”

With more cases cropping up in East Hawai‘i, Datta said, Hilo is pretty fragile, adding she doesn’t think it’s a matter of if, but when the virus breaks out at HCCC.

“All that contact with the community where there’s an uptick in COVID cases is a huge risk,” Datta explained.

Hawai`i Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald. Judiciary photo.

The State Office of the Public Defender first raised concerns about the spread of the virus inside jails back in March when they filed a petition with the Hawai‘i Supreme Court requesting that nonviolent prisoners be released from facilities statewide to avoid an outbreak. The high court appointed a Special Master in April to work with the interested parties to address the issues raised in the petition, as well as to recommend a resolution while protecting public health and safety.

From that collaboration, Datta said, approximately 162 inmates were released from HCCC. The threat that the released inmates will re-offend is exaggerated, Datta said. Of the inmates released a few months ago, Datta said, only a few were re-arrested.

The prosecutor’s office is further concerned that the order doesn’t require the address and contact numbers for released inmates, but only asks for them if they are available.

Ross posed the question, “Where are these people to self-isolate for 14 days?”

Datta said the court cannot require an address as that would be discriminating against the houseless.

Additionally, the order requires those released to appear in court on Dec. 1, 2020, at 1:30 p.m. Ross said that day is already scheduled to be a heavy court date and will create a crowded courthouse during a pandemic.

The prosecutor’s office believes HCCC staff has done a good job to keep the facility COVID-19-free throughout the pandemic. Ross said outbreaks from the virus are valid concerns for any institution where people are housed, especially when there’s a constant flow of individuals coming and going.

To address these concerns, Ross said, the state should provide the Public Safety Department (PSD) with sufficient tools to do their jobs safely.

Ross said County Prosecutor Mitch Roth has been urging PSD to utilize its spaces to expand the capacity of HCCC. There is space at Hale Nani and Kulani Prison to expand the facilities outdoors, which would be a safer environment for the inmates and the employees. The state should use all available resources including federal resources, if necessary, for this purpose, Ross said.

“We believe because of the unique circumstances of this county, there is the ability to increase the capacity of HCCC,” Ross said. “If releases are still necessary, the court should ensure that supervision and other appropriate resources are available and ready to assist released inmates.”

A failure to take into consideration the unique circumstances of Hawai‘i County and each inmate, Ross added, increases the risk to the community.

“If this release results in a crime wave where people are hurt, that will negatively impact the community’s trust in the judicial system,” she said.

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