Hawaii Supreme Court OKs expedited release of eligible inmates

It's unclear how many inmates would be released as a result of the order, but it could be in the hundreds

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

HONOLULU, Hawaii — The Hawaii Supreme Court on Monday issued a new order speeding up a plan to allow eligible felons and those charged with felonies to be released from Oahu Community Correctional Center quickly to help curb the spike in COVID-19 cases at the Kalihi facility.

It’s unclear, at initial glance, how many actual inmates would be released as a result of the order, but it could be in the hundreds.

Those eligible must not have been convicted of violent crimes or any other crimes against people.
Those eligible must not have been convicted of violent crimes or any other crimes against people. (Photo/Hawaii Department of Public Safety)

Everyone meeting the criteria set forth by the justices is presumed to have had a case for release filed on their behalf.

While cases are to be brought to judges on an individual basis, it would be up to the prosecutors to determine in which cases they want to file objections.

Any objections would need to be filed by end of day Wednesday, and courts would need to make final determinations by end of day Monday.

Those eligible must not have been convicted of violent crimes or any other crimes against people.

Specifically, those slated to be freed include:

  • Inmates serving sentences of no more than 18 months as part of a condition of sentencing for deferral or probation.
  • Pretrial detainees charged with felonies.

Before being released, the Department of Public Safety is expected to ensure that the inmate has not tested positive, is not awaiting results of a COVID-19 test and is not exhibiting symptoms.

Deputy Public Defender Jacquie Esser said a quick count of lists released to her office by Public Safety shows as eligible 147 pretrial felons and 53 felons serving probation as part of their sentences. But she stressed that those numbers did not exclude those who are infected, awaiting test results or exhibiting symptoms, so the actual amount of inmates released could be much lower, she said.

The number of inmates testing positive climbed exponentially last week and, although in less dramatic numbers, has continued to increase steadily so far this week.

As of end of day Monday, Public Safety had reported 181 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, along with 30 corrections officers and other staff.

Of the latest 49 cases for which Public Safety obtained test results, 13 were positive and 36 were negative.

More than half of the jail’s total population, which stood at 968 on Thursday, has yet to be tested.

A petition filed by the Office of the Public Defender last week demanded that the high court compel state officials to release inmates en masse from the state’s largest, and one of its most overcrowded, corrections facility.

Attorney General Clare Connors and Acting Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Dwight Nadamoto opposed an expedited process for inmate releases, arguing that judges needed to analyze the unique situations of each inmate. But Deputy Public Defender Susan Arnett told the judges that the virus’ fast-spreading nature would not allow for a process that took so much time.

Esser, in a statement, said while her office is encouraged by today’s order, “we are concerned that the release process, though expedited, is not urgent enough given the dramatic spike in cases in the community and in congregate settings like OCCC.”

Esser noted that the order does not include those charged with more serious charges. “Release of individuals in those categories will be considered for release only on a case-by-case analysis that takes into account the pending charges and the background of the individual as well as the facts of each case,” she said.

On Sunday the court ordered the temporary release of certain pretrial detainees and inmates at OCCC. That order applies to certain individuals incarcerated solely due to petty misdemeanor or misdemeanor convictions, provided they meet the other guidelines that also apply to the categories addressed today.

While that initial list consisted of roughly 270 people, only about 30 actually qualify based on the criteria set by the court, Esser said Monday.

Meanwhile, corrections officers and their union officials continued to voice frustration with the severity of the OCCC situation.

Liz Ho, administrator of the United Public Workers, said corrections officers at OCCC and elsewhere are frustrated at the lack of attention being paid to their plight. Personal protective equipment is being distributed much too slowly, she said.

“At OCCC, we got officers who this past weekend were working 24-hour shifts,” Ho said. “This one guy is saying he worked a 32-hour shift.” Some are working the extra hours out of loyalty, others because they have not racked up enough sick leave or vacation time to stay out, she said.

“They’re all making a commitment to be there and there’s no support from the department,” Ho said.

One adult corrections officer, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears reprisals for speaking up, said she’s fortunate to be able to stay at home when others cannot.

Because of staff shortages, supervisors are calling back corrections officers who’ve tested positive or are still supposed to be on quarantine for up to 14 days, the corrections officer said.

At the very least, she said, there needs to more cleaning and disinfecting of the facilities.


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