COVID-19 risk decreased, state Supreme Court ends inmate early release program

COVID-19 risk decreased, state Supreme Court ends inmate early release program
File photo of the Oahu Community Correctional Center.

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state Supreme Court said Friday that it was ending a program that granted hundreds of inmates being held in Hawaii jails an early release to try and prevent the spread of coronavirus.

In early April, as the coronavirus began to spread aggressively and with most of the state already shut down, the Supreme Court ordered the state’s law enforcement authorities ― including the Department of the Attorney General and county prosecutors ― to release as many nonviolent offenders from Hawaii’s eight jails as quickly as possible, citing concerns about the potential for an outbreak inside one of the facilities.

On Friday, in the absence of such an outbreak and with the state’s confirmed number of coronavirus cases low, justices said they no longer needed to continue to follow orders that had been made months ago.

“At the time, the potential catastrophic impact of the pandemic on our State, the community, our citizens, and our correctional centers and facilities was not determinable," a portion of the court’s ruling read.

Rather than granting a blanket release for certain categories of inmates, the Supreme Court said, a Special Master was appointed to help prosecutors and public defenders determine which inmates would be granted early release.

Friday’s ruling marked the services of the Special Master ‘completed.’ The ruling directs further issues to be taken up through authorities like the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission,

Inmate releases helped lower the population of Hawaii’s jail system, but clearly had other impacts. The Honolulu Police Department said that dozens of the inmates who were released early on Oahu because of the COVID-19 pandemic had been taken back into custody, with some having been re-arrested multiple times.

The department opposed the early release of inmates, as did many of the state’s law enforcement authorities.

The sudden release of inmates also put significant strain on agencies that assist the homeless and mentally ill, since many of the inmates who fall into those categories were not able to seek adequate help upon their release.

“This is a gap group because folks coming out of incarceration are not eligible for many of the homeless and housing services because they’re targeted for chronically homeless folks and because they technically were housed during their incarceration,” said James Koshiba of Hui Aloha, during a meeting of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 last month.

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