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Isle inmates freed due to COVID commit crimes

Nearly 6 out of 10 people released early from Hawaii jails and prisons early last year over COVID-19 concerns have been charged with more offenses, a new study shows.

The local Criminal Justice Research Institute looked at the emergency releases in April of 108 individuals and found that 58%, or 63 people, had been charged with one or more new offenses in the past nine months.

In all, those 63 people were charged with 417 counts of law-breaking.

Of all the charges, 17% were felonies. Another 65% were misdemeanors or petty misdemeanors.

Among all offenses, 3% were violent, and 10% involved drug or property crimes. Another 37% were pandemic emergency order violations, while 19% were public disorder offenses and 21% were traffic infractions.

The report, presented Thursday to a state House committee, reveals the impacts on public safety from only an initial phase of early inmate releases implemented statewide to reduce populations in Hawaii correctional facilities to help reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections among the incarcerated, corrections system employees and others they might contact.

“These are really seen as preliminary trends,” Erin Harbinson, the research institute’s director, told members of the House Committee on Corrections, Military and Veterans.

Since April, close to 1,000 inmates in the state have been released under a few different initiatives overseen by the state court system and the Hawaii Paroling Authority to address coronavirus pandemic risks.

No court-ordered early releases have occurred since Nov. 20, according to Max Otani, director of the state Department of Public Safety.

Views on cost-benefit impacts from the emergency releases were mixed among committee members and justice system officials.

Rep. Takashi Ohno, committee chairman, characterized the rate of rearrests from the initial sample as high.

He said that he has seen records of people who were released early after April and charged with crimes that include sex assault, promoting a dangerous drug, robbery, burglary, assault and weapons possession.

“There’s a lot more out there,” he said after the briefing.

Rep. Sonny Ganaden, the committee’s vice chairman and a criminal law attorney, said the ongoing study will allow calculated risks of the emergency releases to be assessed.

But Ganaden isn’t sure whether the initial result of 17% felony re-offense charges represents a high, low or moderate rate compared with people released under normal circumstances.

“Unfortunately, re-offenses are just part of criminal justice,” he said after the briefing.

Rep. Bert Kobayashi pointed out that those who were released represented a group who had been convicted of, or were facing, less serious charges and were seen as posing a lower risk of endangering the public.

First Circuit Judge Matthew Viola, who was involved in reviewing some emergency-release cases, suggested to the committee that more data should be assessed before judging whether the 17% felony figure is a lot or not.

“Most of this information is preliminary,” he said. “It’s going to have to play out over time. I am hesitant, honestly, to say right now it’s high, low, middle.”

Still, Viola added that there is no question that public harm did result from the initiative.

“Clearly, some of the offenses that occurred, there’s no debate that they compromised public safety,” he said. “The individuals who were the victims in those cases suffered the consequences of those individuals being released. No debate there.”

The Hawaii Supreme Court ordered the initial review of inmates for consideration of emergency early release in April, and more serious offenders were excluded from consideration by judges.

In a separate initiative later, the Hawaii Paroling Authority considered early parole in certain instances, including cases involving people with underlying health issues and prisoners with six to 12 months left on their sentence.

Viola, who was involved with the court-ordered reviews, said it was difficult to weigh the safety risk for inmates and corrections system employees and their family members against the risk of re-offenses by those released.

At the end of August there were 45 active COVID-19 cases among staff and 81 among inmates at Oahu Community Correctional Center, and 25 inmates had just been released under the emergency program.

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