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Hawaii inmate early-release reviews are over

Hawaii judges have finished ruling on 1,088 motions to release incarcerated individuals early over COVID-19 risks, and not many more inmates were set free after 655 last month.

A special master appointed by the Hawaii Supreme Court to oversee the initiative told a special state House committee Monday that the job is done.

“Essentially, the motions filed by the public defenders have been exhausted,” Special Master Daniel Foley told the committee.

An April 30 report from Foley said 655 inmates had been released since March after case reviews under the state high-court order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmissions inside overcrowded Hawaii correctional facilities.

That report indicated that hundreds of cases had yet to be reviewed.

On Monday, Foley said the motions seeking early release have gone through the review process in which prosecutors could argue against early release.

Foley didn’t give a specific count of how many more early inmate releases were made since April 30, but he noted that Hawaii’s inmate population went up a bit recently.

There were 1,387 people locked up at Hawaii correctional facilities Friday, which was up from 1,366 a week earlier on May 8 and represented 802 fewer inmates since March 2, according to Department of Public Safety figures.

Between March 2 and May 1, the inmate population had dropped by 810, to 1,379 from 2,189.

Most of the decline from March 2 to May 1 was from releasing 655 inmates under the court-ordered review. Other factors included the natural completion of sentences and releasing suspected low-level criminal offenders in the community without bail after their arrest and pending trial.

There still could be more convicted prisoners freed early under another Hawaii Supreme Court directive for the Hawaii Paroling Authority to expeditiously consider early release for nearly 500 inmates — including many with already upcoming reviews or reviews that were delayed because of the pandemic. Other inmates to be considered for early parole include seniors, those with underlying health issues and prisoners with six to 12 months left on their sentence.

Foley said this effort is ongoing and isn’t being rushed.

Releasing inmates has generated community concerns over public safety and upholding the law. In some cases, freed inmates have been arrested on charges of committing new crimes.

In recent weeks three county prosecutors, some lawmakers and state Attorney General Clare Connors contended that the initiative to release inmates should stop in part because the number of new coronavirus cases in the state each day has been dwindling to just a few.

On Monday no new cases were identified for the third time in as many weeks.

The release review program was implemented after Hawaii’s Office of the Public Defender petitioned the state’s high court to have judges consider on a case-by-case basis early release for certain nonviolent inmates to ease crowding in prisons and jails. Other private attorneys also asked for case reviews.

Prisons and jails are considered high-risk for COVID-19 transmission, though there have been no confirmed coronavirus cases in Hawaii facilities to date.

The Hawaii Supreme Court ordered the expedited court reviews, and on April 2 appointed Foley, a retired Intermediate Court of Appeals judge, to oversee the process.

State Public Defender James Tabe said some Hawaii correctional facilities are still operating above their inmate design capacities despite population reductions, though he is pleased with the court-­review process.

“It’s something that we had to do,” he said.

At Monday’s meeting of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, University of Hawaii economist Carl Bonham said COVID-19 testing of workers and new inmates entering correctional facilities should be a high priority now that the availability of tests is expanding.

“We ought to be moving on it right away,” he said.

Foley agreed and said, “That would be fabulous. I think everybody would want that to happen.”

Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said DPS has no plans to deviate from current protocols that adhere to state Department of Health and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

The department isolates and tests inmates who show symptoms of respiratory illness. About 25 inmates have been tested and tested negative for the new coronavirus.

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