Four of the five Hawai‘i Supreme Court justices are in favor of ending emergency safety rules that allow for the release of specific inmates from jails and prisons statewide due to COVID-19 concerns and overcrowding.
On March 31, the Supreme Court filed an order to show cause, premised on the conclusion that the severity of the threat to O‘ahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC) inmates from the COVID-19 emergency had reduced to a level that no longer justified court intervention.
Associate Justice Michael Wilson was the lone dissenter.
The Supreme Court issued two previous orders, the first on Aug. 15 and the second on Aug. 17, addressing the release of nonviolent pretrial prisoners for felony, petty misdemeanor and misdemeanor charges at OCCC and other jails statewide. Hawai‘i’s top court agreed to the expedited release of petty misdemeanor and misdemeanor suspects. The order stems from Public Defender’s Office petition to release nonviolent inmates statewide to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak like the one that occurred at OCCC in August 2020.
According to the March 31 order, the Supreme Court noted three things: the rate of positive cases in Hawai‘i’s correctional centers and facilities has stabilized since the petition was filed in August 2020; testing and other health and safety measures have been implemented within the correctional centers and facilities, and a vaccination program to vaccinate inmates is underway.
“It appears much of the relief requested in the OPD’s petition has been addressed, and the conditions that necessitated swift action by this court in August 2020 are no longer prevalent,” the court document stated. “Thus, it appears that this matter may be concluded.”
To date, Wilson stated in a court filing the Department of Public Safety has failed to remedy the persistent overpopulation at OCCC, notwithstanding the history of infection that has transpired.
“In light of this record and the continuing pandemic emergency, the recent reduction in the infection rate does not provide a basis for an order to show cause premised on the assumption that the unconstitutional conditions at OCCC have ended,” Wilson stated.
The condition of release contained in the August order for misdemeanors and petty misdemeanors has ensured that those accused of the least serious crimes do not lose their freedom because they are poor or homeless, Wilson noted.
“This condition also benefits the incarcerated people at OCCC — the state’s largest correctional facility — who face overcrowded conditions during the COVID-19 emergency,” the associate justice stated. “A reduced population reduces the risk to the incarcerated population, the correctional staff, and the outside community of contracting and spreading COVID-19.”
Interested parties have until April 7, at midnight to file a motion to show cause as to why this matter shouldn’t be concluded. The Supreme Court will take the responses under consideration.
As of this morning, O‘ahu representatives Val Okimoto, Bob McDermott, Gene Ward Lauren Matsumoto joined in an amicus letter supporting the Supreme Court’s opinion to conclude all emergency orders in relation to COVID-19.
“Public safety is at risk during the COVID-19 crisis and releasing offenders places the public at even greater risk,” lawmakers wrote.
The Department of Public Safety told Big Island Now it supports all reasonable efforts made to safely reduce the inmate population while keeping the needs for public safety foremost in mind.
“The Public Safety Department has a mandate to ensure the health and safety of all inmates in custody,” stated DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz. “Our facilities have been burdened by the extreme overcrowding for decades, and now added to that are the unique challenges posed by the COVID pandemic.”