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Hawaii weighs paroling more terminally ill inmates

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Delbert Wakinekona lay in an Oahu hospital bed just hours before he died Jan. 8.

Mentally and physically debilitated prisoners in Hawaii are likely to gain easier access to parole hearings under changes state agencies are making.

A bill Hawaii lawmakers are considering would give prisoners suffering from dementia or other grave impairments the chance to ask for early release. Even if that bill (SB 72) does not become law, the Hawaii Paroling Authority and the Department of Public Safety are moving to include more illnesses among those that qualify inmates for possible early release.

Inmates who are "too cognitively impaired and/or functionally compromised" to threaten public safety upon release will be allowed to petition the Department of Public Safety for a parole hearing under the new rules.

The changes widen current regulations that allow early parole hearings for inmates who are terminally ill. They could take effect later this year, said Tommy Johnson, a Hawaii parole administrator.

"The inmate population is getting older," Johnson said after the hearing. "And because of the lifestyle they previously led, they have a lot of medical issues."

Johnson told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday that during the past two years the 23 inmates who qualified for early medical release ultimately were all paroled. They had all served their minimum sentences and were deemed to pose no threat to the public, he said.

Not all inmates who ask for early release on medical grounds are paroled. Some haven’t served enough of their sentence, while others are considered too dangerous to release. One who applied had recently assaulted a fellow inmate, Ted Sakai, director of the Department of Public Safety, told lawmakers. That applicant’s case was not passed on to parole administrators.

Once a terminally ill inmate is released, Johnson said, parole terms may accommodate that inmate’s condition. For instance, a parole officer may visit such a person at home or at a hospital rather than insist the inmate check in at an office for drug testing.

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