Honolulu police already have rearrested 47 people who were released from jail in recent weeks as part of the effort to reduce the inmate population to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the state correctional system, lawmakers were told Wednesday.
Acting City Prosecutor Dwight Nadamoto also told the House Public Safety Committee that inmates who have been released under court orders that mention COVID included a number of violent offenders, including one who was charged with second-degree assault for allegedly attacking a 74-year-old man with a golf club.
Another case where the threat of COVID infections was cited in the release order involved a suspect who allegedly attacked a victim with a sword, cutting her face, arm and hands, Nadamoto said. Another involved a suspect who violated a protective order and began swinging a bat at the female victim, and was later convicted of burglary and terroristic threatening.
Still another case involved an inmate convicted of seven counts of second-degree sexual assault in a case involving a victim who was less than 14 years old. Another involved an inmate convicted of violation of privacy for taking pictures of people urinating, he said.
Nadamoto went on to tick off a list of other cases where people were accused of robbery, assault, burglary, possession of more than an ounce of methamphetamine or “ice,” smashing the windshield of a car while people were inside, sexual assault and theft.
“All these people were released due to COVID,” he said. “The motion (to release) said COVID, the order said COVID.”
There have actually been no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in the correctional system so far, and Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth warned that the push by defense lawyers and judges to reduce the state jail population in response to the COVID threat has created a “dangerous situation.”
The state Supreme Court on April 15 issued an order instructing the state Public Defender’s Office to file motions with the circuit courts proposing the release of hundreds of jail inmates. Each court was then supposed to determine if the prisoners could be safely released to prevent the spread of the disease in Hawaii’s overcrowded jails.
The high court specified that “release shall be presumed, unless the court finds that the release of the inmate would pose a significant risk to the safety of the inmate or the public.”
The courts on Oahu then considered 866 public defender motions for release of inmates because of COVID by the court-imposed deadline of April 28, and 503 prisoners were actually released, according to Daniel Foley, a former Intermediate Court of Appeals judge who was appointed special master to oversee the process.
But since then both public defenders and private lawyers have continued to file motions asking that their clients be released to avoid the risk of COVID infections, lawmakers were told.
“We’ve had people with domestic violence who were doing their sentences having their sentences cut short because of motions,” said Roth. Other cases involved sex assault defendants and alleged burglars released, he said.
“We’ve had some situations where when you do the balancing test, we have tipped the scales to something that I don’t think the chief justice had desired, or anybody else,” Roth said. “At the current time, we’re hearing from victims that are not wanting to participate in the system because they don’t believe we can protect them.”
State Attorney General Clare Connors said the 47 new arrests of inmates who were released because of COVID might not seem like a large number, but “that’s kind of a big number if you’re a victim of one of those crimes.”
“We don’t have a case of COVID-19 in our prison system, and that’s good, but many individuals have been released over the objections of prosecutors, we have had re-offenses, and we do think that it’s time for this effort to stop,” she said.
Foley told the committee that the various parties are now engaged in mediation to try to resolve the prosecutors’ concerns over the releases, but “all the parties, and myself of course as the mediator, are not at liberty to discuss what’s going on in mediation, whether it will be successful, where it’s heading, what’s being discussed, but that’s currently ongoing.”