The Hawaii Supreme Court this afternoon ended its unprecedented action requiring the state, the lower courts and other stakeholders to work expeditiously toward a plan to consider the release of hundreds of inmates from Hawaii-run prisons and jails, an action aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 among incarcerated individuals, corrections employees and their families.
Since the initial order was issued in April, more than 650 inmates have been released. Recently, however, concerns about community spread of coronavirus in Hawaii have diminished and many of the establishments that have been closed to the public are now reopening.
The original release order was issued after state Public Defender James Tabe filed a motion in March seeking inmate releases, arguing that Hawaii’s jails and prisons have historically been vastly overcrowded.
Tabe warned that a spread through the system was imminent, noting that outbreaks had occurred in several overcrowded institutions in the continental U.S.
In its motions today, a four-justice majority struck a different tone than in the past.
“Much of the urgent relief requested in the two petitions (filed by Tabe) has been addressed,” today’s four-page order said. “All of the (Office of Public Defender) motions for early release filed pursuant to this court’s April 15, 2020 order were adjudicated by April 28, 2020.”
The order specifically does not bar Tabe’s office or any defense attorneys from filing individual motions seeking the release of any inmates, nor does it stop state attorneys or prosecutors from seeking to modify the release status of any of those released.
It also will not stop proceedings now scheduled to take place before the Hawaii Paroling Authority.
Additionally, the court said, “further issues regarding inmate populations at correctional facilities may be addressed through alternative means, including collaboration with the Hawai‘i Correctional Systems Oversight Commission … to, among other things, establish maximum inmate population limit for each correctional facility and formulate policies and procedures to prevent the inmate population from exceeding the capacity of each correctional facility.”
The court had been criticized for ordering the releases from Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors, three of the state’s four county prosecutors, and others worried that inmates were being released with lax supervision and were committing criminal acts in the community.
They also argued that the Supreme Court action was unnecessary because the Department of Public Safety, the various county police departments, prosecutors and defense attorneys were already working cooperatively to ease the populations on their own.