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Editorial: Inmate releases show some flaws

The court-appointed special master on the Hawaii inmates’ coronavirus threat, and the overseeing judges, have finished with an early- release initiative aimed at reducing overcrowding in state prisons.

That doesn’t mean the work is done, of course, because Hawaii’s efforts to head off the public health endangerment must continue to evolve, to deal with an evolving crisis. This includes enabling the prisons to tap into the state’s expanding capacity to test for COVID-19, the disease at the heart of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In addition, there is some justifiable concern that the screening process determining which inmates should be released could be improved. Prosecutors addressing lawmakers on Wednesday argued that some candidates, including some convicted of assault and sexual assault whose petitions should have been rejected, were ultimately part of the early release.

And some were released based on assurances that they had a residence; as things played out, however, some have ended up on the streets. That has got to be addressed, too.

In all, 1,088 motions have been heard for releasing inmates early over concerns about elevated risks of transmitting COVID-19. However, Special Master Dan Foley doesn’t expect many more than the 655 releases last month, despite the fact that hundreds more still needed review as of an April 30 report.

There’s the potential for the prison doors to open again: A further directive came from the high court for the Hawaii Paroling Authority to expedite its review of other candidates for early release. And there have been more recent additions to the prison population.

Foley said that the process is ongoing and will not be rushed. That pledge certainly must be reinforced, based on the feedback the Legislature received from a informational briefing before the House Committee on Public Safety, Veterans &Military Affairs.

The briefing included presentations by Foley as well as state Attorney General Clare Connors, Public Defender James Tabe and prosecuting attorneys from all four counties.

Tabe acknowledged that there have been no positive infections in prisons yet; the current records of the state Department of Public Safety show that only 26 tests have been taken so far. This surely reflects the low background levels of infection found in the community at large.

However, Tabe said, Hawaii is not done with COVID-19, and that maintaining social distancing at the prisons will remain a challenge. And simply keeping inmates inside presents its own risk to the community. Anyone who gets truly sick will be sent out to the hospitals, as the facilities only have infirmaries.

“We need to limit capacity in our jails,” he said. “It can get worse.”

On that, he’s right: It certainly isn’t time to allow the same degree of prison crowding to be re-established. But the flip side of the coin: The screening of candidates for release must get better.

Since the program was implemented, 47 former inmates have been rearrested, said Dwight Nadamoto, acting Honolulu prosecutor.

These in particular should be directed into COVID-19 testing, even if they do not meet current criteria. Testing capacity has increased since all this started, and now would be the time to use it.

“Hopefully when they go back we can be reasonably assured that they haven’t picked it up,” Nadamoto said.

Walking the line between both aspects of public safety — mitigating health risks from a pandemic and protecting citizens from released inmates reoffending — is a precarious balancing act. Hawaii’s people have to hope learning from the experience so far can yield needed improvements.

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