HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - More than 500 Hawaii inmates have been released early by state judges because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report by a court-appointed special master.
Most are nonviolent offenders who have been locked up for minor offenses. But prosecutors said inmates convicted of sex crimes — like Jordan Cortez — also were let out.
Cortez a former A-Plus leader at Ewa Elementary School was serving six months for sexually assaulting an underage girl. He was supposed to be locked up until July but a judge released him temporarily two weeks ago due to the pandemic.
“It sets a bad precedent because there is the potential to release dangerous people. And there’s nothing in the order that says we have to consider the victim," said retired judge and Hawaii Pacific University professor Randal Lee.
But prison reform advocates and defense lawyers said early release is the right thing to do.
Given the history of overcrowding at Hawaii’s prisons and jails, they said that releasing non-violent offenders could prevent an outbreak among prisoners.
“So far, apparently those risks have not materialized but once they do — as we’ve seen in prisons on the mainland — all of a sudden you go from one case to ten cases to hundreds of cases, if not thousands in a matter of days," said attorney Eric Seitz.
“For most of the people we’re asking to release, they pose no risk to anybody. They have not committed violent crimes ... They’re over 65, some of them are over 80.”
But there were a few repeat offenders, like Vanity Sua.
Sua was initially charged with forgery and was serving time for repeatedly violating the terms of her HOPE probation. But she was let out on April 8 due to the pandemic.
Then last week while on release, she was arrested and charged by federal law enforcement for taking part in an armed car jacking.
Lee, the retired judge, said inmates like her are set up to fail.
“The defendants ... may not have the treatment tools, the economic or social tools to comply with terms and conditions of release," he said.