Hawaii Supreme Court Ends Pandemic-Related Early Prisoner Release

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As state and local governments across the United States ease pandemic-related restrictions, the Supreme Court of the State of Hawaii has decided to end a program that allowed for the release of low-level inmates early in hopes of controlling the spread of COVID-19 in the Aloha State’s detention facilities.

The three-page ruling ending judicial oversight of the jails came on April 16. The vote was 4–1.

The order also ended the temporary prohibition on judges imposing bail on defendants charged with certain low-level offenses.

Concerned about a viral breakout at Oahu Community Correctional Center, the Office of the Public Defender filed a petition with the court Aug. 12, 2020, seeking the expedited release of certain categories of inmates at Hawaii’s community correctional centers and facilities. At that time, “the pandemic’s trajectory remained uncertain and vaccinations were not available.”

Citing the virulence at the time of the CCP virus within close quarters and the possibility that its spread in Hawaii’s jails had the potential to overwhelm health care providers, the court established procedures for considering the release of some inmates and pretrial detainees.

Hundreds of misdemeanor and pretrial detainees and those serving misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor sentences were reportedly released under the order. Excluded from the early release program were individuals convicted of or awaiting trial for felony assault, sexual assault or attempted sexual assault, burglary, robbery, unauthorized entry to a dwelling, domestic abuse, or violating a restraining order, protective order, or injunction.

Last month, as petty criminals continued to be released, Honolulu residents complained about a surge in chaos and lawlessness, blaming the early release program for it, Hawaii News Now reported at the time. The state Supreme Court policy allowed accused criminals to be set free hours after being arrested.

“There’s no consequences for their bad behaviors,” said Dr. Chad Koyanagi, a local psychiatrist. Because jails aren’t an option for offenders, some hospitals have been effectively transformed into detention facilities, and their employees have been physically attacked.

“Half a dozen people were injured by a particular individual, and I heard that he wasn’t even taken into custody,” Koyanagi said at the time. “He was released back to his family, which is horrifying to me.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Hawaii filed a brief with the state’s high court urging that the program be continued.

But because COVID-19 is under control in the jails, there’s no need to continue the early release policy, the court determined in its new ruling.

“Today, according to recent filings in this case, it appears that the rate of positive cases in Hawaii’s correctional centers and facilities has significantly declined since the petition was filed in August 2020, 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. Thus, it appears that the conditions that necessitated swift action by this court in August 2020 are no longer prevalent,” the court stated.

Both the state and defense counsel continue to have the option of filing individual motions seeking release, the court said.

In his dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Michael D. Wilson said the court’s majority was ignoring the expert opinion of Dr. Pablo Stewart, who found “the health and safety measures that have been implemented inside … remain inadequate and ineffective at mitigating the risks and addressing the harms created by COVID-19.”

After the ruling, the Hawaii Department of Public Safety said there were no more active COVID-19 cases in the incarcerated population in Hawaii correctional facilities or at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, which is under state contract to house prisoners from Hawaii, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

The ACLU of Hawaii was “extremely disappointed” with the ruling, Wookie Kim, its legal director, told reporters.

“Everything feels the same, looks the same, is the same … so for the court to say these emergency conditions are no longer prevalent is shocking to read.”



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