108 inmates on Big Isle seek early release because of pandemic

  • ROTH

The state Supreme Court ordered the Hawaii Paroling Authority to “expeditiously address requests for early parole” for prisoners because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

An interim order filed Thursday by the state’s high court orders the parole board to consider releasing the most vulnerable among the inmate population, including those 65 or older, pregnant women, inmates who are close to the end of their sentences and have been moved to minimum security, and those being detained on parole violations that wouldn’t be crimes if they weren’t parolees.

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HPA also was ordered to submit periodic progress reports to the special master appointed by the Supreme Court to oversee the release process, retired Intermediate Court of Appeals Judge Daniel Foley. The reports are to include the names of inmates released, those who are under consideration for release and those who, after consideration, were denied early release.

Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth said that so far, motions have been filed for early release for 108 inmates on the Big Island.

“That doesn’t mean that there have been 108 people who have been released,” Roth said. “There are motions that are pending, there are motions that we’ve (agreed) to. But there are about 65 where they may have been contested.”

Roth said the courts have been denying release of inmates he describes as “very dangerous offenders.”

“The murder cases and the sex offense cases where they’ve filed (requests for release) — my understanding is that the courts have denied those,” he said. “You can see that the (Supreme) Court has taken a lot of consideration into everything that has been filed by the defense, by the special master and by the prosecutors.

“We’ve made some recommendations that there shouldn’t be mass release” of inmates, Roth continued. “They haven’t been mass-releasing them.”

According to Roth, the high court “appreciates the approach that’s been taken across the state, not just on this island.”

“With all of the stakeholders working together, there has been progress,” he said.

Any additional motions seeking release of inmates are to be filed by Monday, and pending motions are ordered in Thursday’s document to be heard by judges April 28.

“Release shall be presumed, unless the court finds that the release of the inmate would pose a significant risk to the safety of the inmate or the public,” the order states, an apparent instruction to lower court judges.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of people filing motions, and I think that’s going to immediately cause a lot of work for our office,” Roth said. “It looks like next week we’ll have a lot of motions that we’ll be responding to. There’s going to be a time crunch.”

The order also gives circuit, district and family court judges the authority to deny release to pretrial detainees they deem a threat to public safety or a flight risk. But it also directed lower courts to release those inmates who aren’t a potential public menace or a flight risk without imposing or maintaining cash bail.

“Pretrial detainees who are poor and not a risk to public safety or a flight risk should not be held simply because they do not have the means to post cash bail,” the order states.

As of Thursday, Hawaii Community Correctional Center had a total inmate population of 282, according to Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety. That’s still 56 inmates above its operational capacity of 226 inmates, but 113 fewer inmates than the population the chronically overcrowded jail reported March 2. Many of those released are pretrial detainees.

“The Department of Public Safety has been working diligently to make sure that there are no cases,” Roth noted. “They’ve had to quarantine people; they’ve had to test people. They’ve been doing everything right and, so far, no one’s tested positive. On our island, everybody who’s been tested has come back negative.

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“… They have taken precautionary measures to keep our jail safe and our community safe.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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