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Hawaii officials weigh motion to release 426 inmates to curb the spread of coronavirus

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Hawaii prosecutors and public defenders will meet again today to try to reach agreement over which inmates now being held at the state’s four jails will be released in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The discussions are taking place as the Hawaii Supreme Court weighs two motions filed last week by the Office of the Public Defender asking the state to release as many as 426 inmates as quickly as possible from Hawaii’s chronically overcrowded jails. Social distancing is the top recommendation by health experts, and the failure to release inmates quickly will likely lead to mass infections and possibly deaths, the filings said.

The Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission has submitted letters to the high court supporting early release to help ease jail populations.

But Attorney General Claire E. Connors and three of the four county prosecutors are raising reservations about a mass release, arguing that they want to be able to review inmates case-by-case before deciding whether to release them.

The four jails are the Oahu Community Correctional Center, Maui Community Correctional Center, Kauai Community Correctional Center and Hawaii Community Correctional Center.

Releasing inmates amid the coronavirus crisis is a debate taking place across the country, heightened by reports in recent days of extensive spread in some of the country’s largest jails and prisons. No cases had been reported in Hawaii’s correctional facilities as of Wednesday, but inmate advocates warn it might just be matter of time.

Hawaii jails are frequently so full that inmates are triple-celled or sleep on mattresses on the floors of recreation areas. Corrections officers and other employees who enter and leave the jails each day are also at risk for becoming infected and then spreading the virus, advocates warn.

Public Defender James Tabe noted that the number of infected inmates at New York’s Rikers Island, one of the largest corrections facilities in the world, soared to nearly 200 from one in 12 days. “The numbers can climb that fast,” Tabe said.

Tabe said public defenders, prosecutors and Connors’ staff during a teleconference Tuesday disagreed on several issues, including whether all those being released need to have a verified residence and be subjected to electronic monitoring.

“We agree they should be supervised,” Tabe said, noting that inmates typically are under some type of supervision depending on why they are released.

A timeline for release also needs to be worked out and the prosecutors have yet to submit their responses to his list of potential release candidates and which cases they oppose.

One idea to resolve the standoff would be to have the court name an independent special master agreed upon by the parties who would make release decisions based on criteria agreed to by the parties.

In a filing Tuesday, the AG’s office said it would be OK with a special master, provided that released inmates must not be a risk to victims, family members or the public; have a safe place to live; and must be subject to “reasonable monitoring.”

All nine members of the Honolulu City Council signed a letter urging the high court to not approve a mass release of inmates because it could tax the city’s already limited resources. They urged the justices to at least consult city officials before releasing anyone. The letter echoed comments made by Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Police Chief Susan Ballard on Tuesday.

Among others submitting letters to the court was the nonprofit Mothers Against Drunk Driving Hawaii, which said it opposes releasing impaired driving felons in custody for causing death or serious injury, or because they are habitual offenders.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii is among the organizations that support the public defenders’ position.

Inmates housed in the state’s four prisons are not under consideration in the these two motions, except for three inmates at the Women’s Community Correctional Center.

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