Court orders release of certain felons as COVID-19 grips state’s largest jail

Updated: Aug. 17, 2020 at 6:57 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - As the new coronavirus continues to spread through the Oahu Community Correctional Center, the state Supreme Court on Monday ordered the release of certain felons to ease overcrowding at the Kalihi jail.

A total of 181 inmates and 30 staff have now tested positive, according to the Hawaii Department of Public Safety.

“Given the rising number of COVID-19 cases at OCCC and the difficulties with social distancing, there is urgent and immediate concern in reducing the inmate population at OCCC to protect those who work at or are detained at OCCC, their families, and the community,” the justices wrote in their order Monday.

"Responding to the impact of this crisis in our community correctional centers and facilities requires a careful consideration of interests, both for public health and public safety."

The high court's latest decision includes pretrial detainees charged with a felony as well as inmates serving less than 18 months as a condition of felony deferral or probation.

There are exceptions for crimes such as sex assault, burglary and family abuse. The respective courts will review the cases.

“These are people who have been deemed appropriate for community supervision, but are either held on a violation, which could be a technical violation -- for example, not reporting to a probation officer -- or there are people that are serving the remainder of their jail term of their probation, so they’re going to be released in the near future,” said deputy public defender Jacquie Esser

Inmates need to self-isolate for 14 days after being released.

"If they do not comply with that, it's a violation of the order and they could be rearrested if necessary," Esser said. "The order specifically lays out what needs to happen, and we have to trust people to follow the orders."

Individuals who are released must immediately report the development of COVID-19 symptoms to the Department of Health.

On Sunday, the court ordered that pretrial detainees who are charged with a petty misdemeanor or a misdemeanor -- and people incarcerated for those convictions -- should be released by Wednesday.

There are exceptions for certain offenses.

"The people included in the order are incarcerated for very low-level, non-violent offenses," said Esser. "We're talking about people charged with driving without a license, being in a park after hours, open container, trespassing violations."

In both orders, the justices said inmates can only be released if they have not tested positive for COVID-19 and are not exhibiting any symptoms

DPS officials said they need time to identify those who qualify, and then respond accordingly to the orders.

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