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Hawai‘i Supreme Court Ends Emergency Order to Release Nonviolent Inmates Due to COVID-19

By Tiffany DeMasters
April 17, 2021, 7:30 AM HST
* Updated April 16, 9:44 PM
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The Hawai‘i Supreme Court decided to lift its emergency safety order in place due to COVID-19 and overcrowding concerns, allowing for the release of nonviolent inmates from jails statewide.

According to the order filed Friday, April 16, the trial courts again have full discretion whether to set bail and to impose conditions of release on defendants. Issues regarding inmate populations may be addressed through alternative means, including by the Hawai‘i Correctional Systems Oversight Commission.

The court’s decision comes after the Public Safety Department reported two positive COVID-19 cases among employees at Hawaii Community Correctional Center just days apart.

…”Testing and other health and safety measures have been implemented within the correctional centers and facilities, and a vaccination program to vaccinate inmates is underway,” the order stated. “Thus, it appears that the conditions that necessitated swift action by this court in August 2020 are no longer prevalent. Conclusion of this proceeding is therefore appropriate.”

https://www.scribd.com/document/503283739/Order-Concluding-Proceeding-SCPW-20-509

The initial order stems from Public Defender’s Office petition to release nonviolent inmates statewide to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak like the one that occurred at OCCC in August 2020. As a result, the court two previous orders, the first on Aug. 15 and the second on Aug. 17, addressing the release of nonviolent pretrial prisoners for felony, petty misdemeanor and misdemeanor charges at OCCC and other jails statewide. Hawai‘i’s top court agreed to the expedited release of petty misdemeanor and misdemeanor suspects.

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According to the order, recent filings filed in the case indicate the rate of positive COVID cases in Hawaiʻi’s correctional centers and facilities has significantly declined since the petition was filed in August 2020.

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Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney Kelden Waltjen is pleased with the court’s decision.

For the past several months, Waltjen said, there have been offenders, primarily property crime offenders, released after committing second or third offenses while other matters were pending.

“The prosecutor’s office shared in the community’s frustration to the revolving door created as a result of the pandemic releases,” Waltjen said.

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Waltjen said he trusts the courts will set bail.

Orders related to the release or temporary suspension of incarceration of defendants arising out of this original proceeding shall remain in effect unless otherwise modified by specific order(s) of trial courts relating to specific defendants.

Associate Justice Michael Wilson was the lone dissenter, ruling against the order. To protect judges from the lethal threat posed by inmates who have contracted COVID-19, Wilson stated in his dissent order, the Majority exercised emergency jurisdiction to suspend the rights of all inmates to appear in court.

“The incarcerated people of Hawai‘i are a more vulnerable population. They are captive,” Wilson stated. “They deserve no less protection from the lethal threat of COVID-19 during the pandemic emergency. Emergency jurisdiction should be maintained by this court until the emergency ends or expert testimony establishes that reasonable measures — including reduction of the inmate population to design capacity — have been implemented to protect the incarcerated men and women of Hawai‘i from cruel and unusual conditions.”

https://www.scribd.com/document/503284097/Dissent-to-Order-Concluding-Proceeding-SCPW-20-509
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.
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