Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald has directed some top Hawaii judges to work with police and prosecutors to identify jail inmates who can be quickly released to reduce the inmate population in Hawaii’s packed jails to try to prevent the spread of coronavirus among the prisoners and staff.
According to a letter dated Tuesday, Recktenwald instructed the chief judges and deputy chief judges in the Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii County circuits to work with prosecutors and public defenders to “identify individuals in custody in community correctional centers who might be subject to release.”
In a related development, the state Office of the Public Defender on Tuesday petitioned the state Supreme Court to commute or suspend the sentences of inmates serving time for petty misdemeanor or misdemeanor offenses in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The petition also would cover inmates who are serving jail time as a condition of probation for felony convictions.
“It is inevitable that the virus will spread into the jails and prison facilities, and, when that happens, the health and well-being of inmates and staff members will be at tremendous risk,” according to the filing by Public Defender James Tabe.
“It is therefore incumbent upon the criminal justice system to reduce our state jail populations to the extent possible without compromising public safety. This is a moral imperative as well as a legal issue,” Tabe wrote.
The public defender’s request is modeled after a consent order in New Jersey that required the release of up to 1,000 low-level offenders by Tuesday in response to the spread of coronavirus.
Recktenwald, who heads the state Supreme Court, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety, said there is a “huge effort” already underway involving the state Judiciary and corrections officials to reduce the jail population.
The department operates Hawaii’s four jails, and Schwartz provided statistics showing the total statewide jail population dropped from 2,245 inmates on Feb. 24 to 1,917 on Wednesday.
Recktenwald disclosed his initiative to try to reduce the jail populations in response to a letter Monday from the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission. The new commission warned this week that “the correctional system may soon be faced with a very serious crisis which will directly impact our community at large.”
Hawaii has struggled with chronic jail overcrowding for years, and has regularly resorted to steps such as triple-celling inmates and lining up mattresses on the floors of jail recreational areas to convert them into makeshift dormitories.
Social distancing in that setting is impractical or impossible, and the virus could quickly spread among jail staff and inmates who are serving short sentences. The commission warned in a letter to Gov. David Ige that the jails’ limited medical staffs may be unable to cope with an outbreak of the virus, which would quickly become a problem for the community at large.
“Some inmates will have to be released from incarceration when they complete their sentences. Almost all of the employees in the correctional system are considered essential workers. They go home every night to their families,” the commission wrote.
The commission argued that the state Department of Public Safety, which runs the state’s prisons and jails, cannot cope with the “impending crisis” alone.
“It has no control over who gets admitted into the facilities, and it has limited control over who can be released,” the commission noted. “Given the level of the current overcrowding, it cannot reduce the population to manageable levels even if it utilized its authority to release to its maximum extent.”
The commission members aren’t the only ones who are worried. The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii has joined with the state Office of the Public Defender and other groups to urge the state to begin releasing jail inmates who have been convicted or are awaiting trial for nonviolent offenses.
“Our facilities are the ideal breeding grounds for the COVID-19 — hundreds of people packed together, often in poor health, with limited ability to follow the hygiene and social distance guidance that the rest of us are trying to observe and enforce,” according to the ACLU letter.
“We cannot stress too heavily the need for urgent action, for dispensing with business as usual,” the groups wrote. “With exponential growth of the infected population, a delay of even a few days could dramatically increase the risk to the people held at the correctional centers, to correctional officers and to the public.”
Those organizations, which included Kokua Kalihi Valley and Lawyers for Equal Justice, proposed that police stop making arrests for petty offenses and limit the number of prisoners who are admitted to the jails by eliminating cash bail.
The groups also proposed the Hawaii Paroling Authority authorize the release of prisoners who are locked up as punishment for parole violations, and urged the prison system to find a way to release hundreds of misdemeanor offenders or nonviolent felons now in jail.
“We should start with people who are over 60 or who have medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the virus,” they wrote. “For the vast majority of pretrial detainees, the real and immediate threat to public health that flows from continued incarceration far outweighs any possible threat to public safety that would flow from release.”
A veteran 30-year corrections officer at Oahu Community Correctional Center said this week the facility seems ill-equipped to handle the possibility that an inmate will be admitted with coronavirus, and the virus will quickly spread.
“We’re all wondering why they wouldn’t prepare, because it’s going to happen,” the corrections officer said. “You can see (the infections) climbing every day. Why wouldn’t it climb here? We’re on the island. And the close quarters of jail is ridiculous. You’ve got three, four people in a cell that’s made for one, basically.”
As of the end of February, OCCC was holding 1,177 inmates in a jail with an operational capacity of 954.
Schwartz, spokeswoman for the public safety department, said that, “In response to the COVID-19 outbreak in our country, the Department of Public Safety has developed a comprehensive response plan consistent with the conditions and environment of our correctional facilities and the communities in which they reside.
As for the ACLU concerns, “The Department of Public Safety welcomes and thanks the ACLU for their input. We are taking their suggestions under serious consideration as we continually revise and update our plan during this fluid situation,” Schwartz said.