Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard raised new objections Tuesday to the proposed release of hundreds of inmates from overcrowded state jails, arguing that releasing prisoners now will trigger an increase in crime at the worst possible time.
The Office of the Public Defender on Monday submitted a list of 426 inmates for the Hawaii Supreme Court to consider for release in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Public Defender James Tabe and advocacy groups are warning that chronic overcrowding in Hawaii jails could fuel rapid spread of COVID-19 and then spread the disease to the larger community as inmates complete their sentences and are released. The jails are so full that inmates are routinely triple-celled or sleep on mattresses on the floors of recreation areas.
Corrections officers who enter and leave the jails each day are also at risk for becoming infected and then spreading the virus, advocates warn.
The state Supreme Court last week responded to those pleas by instructing Tabe’s office to submit a list of inmates serving sentences of up to 18 months as a condition of felony probation; inmates who are serving sentences for misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor convictions; and all pretrial detainees charged with misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor offenses.
It is unclear exactly what will happen next, but Caldwell told reporters Tuesday that at a minimum, police and prosecutors should be consulted before there is any wholesale release of prisoners.
“If they’re going to come back out, and they don’t have a place to go to and they don’t have a job to do, if they have no income and many of our businesses are closed and shuttered, and many of our residents are in their homes, they’re going to do what they know how to do, and they’re going to be breaking and entering, and putting more burden on our police officers,” Caldwell said.
“This has to be really looked at very closely, and it absolutely demands the input of the Honolulu Police Department … and our prosecuting attorney,” Caldwell said.
“I’m making the statement loud and clear because so far the decisions have been made without including our police departments and prosecutors, who are the ones catching these folks and trying to get them in prison so our community is safer.”
Ballard said her department has written a letter to the chief justice on the issue, adding that “I totally agree with the mayor on this, is that there is no reason, in our minds, that anybody should be released out into the community.”
“We don’t want to start releasing more criminals out on the road, and then the anxiety is going to increase,” Ballard said. “I can’t imagine that feeling, and I don’t think we want to put our community through that.”
When asked about Caldwell’s comments, Tabe said, “I don’t think he understands the ramifications of an outbreak in the prison. That will put more stress on our medical community.”
The inmates on the list that was sent to the court are almost all on probation, which means “a judge actually deemed these individuals appropriate to be in the community but (said) before you are, we’re going to give you some jail time,” Tabe said. He said he believes the inmates on the list are nonviolent offenders.
“We’re just asking that they get released now, they’re still on probation, and just do their jail time later,” he said. “Our goal is to at least reduce the population so it’s manageable there if an outbreak occurs,” Tabe said. New Jersey announced plans last week to release 500 to 1,000 jail inmates in a similar effort to try to prevent the spread of the virus inside.
Honolulu Acting Prosecuting Attorney Dwight Nadamoto has said he wants any decisions about inmate releases to be made on a case-by-case basis, and initially argued that every inmate should be tested for the new coronavirus before being released into the community.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety said that there has already been a “huge effort” by the Judiciary and the correctional system to reduce the jail population.
“The Department of Public Safety is well aware of the risks of over-population and crowding in our jails, especially during this pandemic,” the department said in a written statement. “We are taking proactive measures with our criminal justice partners to find ways to temporarily reduce the number of people in our prisons and jails, while keeping the overall safety of the community our top priority.”
That effort has already reduced the population in the four state jails by 370 inmates since March 2, she said.