Virus prompts state high court’s order of faster inmate release

HONOLULU — The Hawaii Supreme Court ordered judicial system officials to move more quickly in complying with its decision for the release of nonviolent inmates because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The order issued Friday focused on lower court judges, prosecutors and the state Department of Public Safety.

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The Supreme Court last week ordered the Department of the Attorney General, the Office of the Public Defender, the Hawaii Paroling Authority and county prosecutors to release as many nonviolent offenders from Hawaii’s eight jails and prisons as quickly as possible.

The requests for inmate releases are to be considered individually by judges.

The order came in response to a lawsuit against the state by public defender James Tabe seeking the expedited early release of hundreds of nonviolent inmates.

The lawsuit argued Hawaii’s historically overcrowded jails and prisons cannot meet federal Centers for Disease Control guidelines for avoiding COVID-19 infections.

While no positive cases were reported at the facilities as of Sunday, inmate advocates warn that Hawaii inmate infections are likely imminent, citing large numbers of infections in jails across the continental U.S.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.

The public defender office said 528 motions were filed on behalf of inmates included on a list the public safety department deemed eligible for release based on criteria established by the high court.

Statistics were not available on how many requests have been approved or denied.

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The Supreme Court’s order reiterated its earlier mandate that the burden is on prosecutors to show eligible inmates should not be released based solely on the grounds of risk to individuals or the public.

The high court also said the public safety department must ensure inmates are issued protective masks. There is no timetable, but the court’s language suggested the equipment distribution should be done quickly.

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