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Hawaii public defender recommends up to 426 inmates be released

The Office of the Public Defender late Monday submitted to the Hawaii Supreme Court a list with the names of 426 inmates that it believes may be released from incarceration to help ease Oahu’s overpopulated jails in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.

Public Defender James Tabe said he is meeting with representatives from the Department of the Attorney General and the four county prosecutors’ offices this morning to see whether the two sides can hash out some of their differences before the deadline.

Tabe’s office and inmate advocacy groups desperately want a portion of the inmates released, arguing that the chronic overcrowded conditions of the jails make their populations extremely vulnerable to COVID-19, which is spread through coming into contact with other people who may be infected.

But the Attorney General’s Office and county prosecutors say the release of inmates is a community safety issue and are warning that care needs to be taken when determining who gets released and under what conditions.

An order issued Friday by the Supreme Court gave Tabe’s office until Monday to submit its list, which is based on three categories laid out in the order.

Tabe told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the overall list of 426 is approximate because the population of the jails, and the Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo in particular, can vary widely.

Kalihi’s Oahu Community Correctional Center, the largest pretrial detainee facility in the state, has a design capacity of 628 inmates. Even with the modifications that give it an operational capacity of 954, its population of 1,177 is 23% over capacity, according to numbers provided by public-safety officials.

Tabe’s Monday filing lists 137 OCCC inmates believed to meets the court’s criteria. Even if every one of the inmates on the list is released, the filing said, “it is doubtful that the relatively small population reduction will be effective in protecting inmates or staff from the potentially devastating effects of the coronavirus.”

The same set of numbers provided by the Department of Public Safety showed a total jail population of about 2,000, meaning the public defender’s list represents about a quarter of the entire population.

An outbreak at any of the jails likely will trigger a spike in those afflicted, which could overwhelm an island’s hospitals and available medical resources, the filing said.

The filing also pointed out that the Honolulu Police Department typically arrests 70 or more people a day. “If we do not stem the flow of inmates into jail, releasing the inmates (on the list) will not significantly reduce the jail population and will have little effect in preventing a coronavirus outbreak,” the filing said.

The names of the 426 inmates the public defender wants released was not made available to the public Monday. But the list includes inmates serving sentences of up to 18 months as a condition of felony probation; inmates serving sentences for misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor convictions; and all pretrial detainees charged with misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor offenses.

Honolulu Acting Prosecuting Attorney Dwight Nadamoto said that even a cursory glance at the list shows names of inmates he doesn’t want to see released for public-safety reasons.

“We want to review everybody on a case-by-case basis,” Nadamoto said. “We don’t want no en-masse release of people.”

Even for those inmates whose release his department would not object to, Nadamoto said, he wants assurances that they are negative for COVID-19. If those assurances aren’t given, they should be quarantined, he said.

“These people are coming out of prison,” he said. “We have people who are on a cruise ship who are coming ashore who are not felons who have to be quarantined for 14 days, so I don’t think it’s too much to ask that these people be quarantined.”

Nadamoto said he also wants the inmates released to be required to show where they will be living. “And somebody’s going to have to be checking up on them,” he said.

Josh Wisch, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union Hawaii, said it’s imperative that the incarcerated population be reduced as much and as quickly as possible.

“Hawaii jails and prisons are the perfect incubators for the coronavirus, so the sooner this population is reduced, the more likely lives will be saved,” Wisch said.

“Reducing the risk of mass infection within jails and prisons will protect us all because it also lowers the risk that the virus will spread to public safety employees, their families and into the broader community,” Wisch said. “The entire system has to act together in this extraordinary time to avoid a public health catastrophe.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Department of Public Safety had until 4:30 p.m. to respond to the list proposed by the Public Defender’s Office.
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