Hawaii Supreme Court denies request regarding release of inmates

Correction: This Hawaii Tribune-Herald story incorrectly stated the state Supreme Court denied by a unanimous 5-0 vote a petition by the Office of the Public Defender seeking an order to decrease populations in correctional facilities in an attempt to stem the spread the spread of the novel coronavirus. The vote was not unanimous.

The state Supreme Court on Tuesday denied petition by the Office of the Public Defender seeking an order to decrease populations in correctional facilities in an attempt to stem the spread the spread of the novel coronavirus.

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The decision notes two prior petitions by the public defender in March 2020 and August 2020 and the actions taken at those times to release certain nonviolent pretrial detainees and post-conviction inmates from the state’s correctional facilities

“At the time those petitions were filed, the pandemic’s trajectory remained uncertain and vaccinations were not available,” the decision on the public defender’s Aug. 27 petition states. “… Since these petitions were filed, three vaccines have been made available to the public including every inmate and staff at Hawaii’s community correctional centers and facilities.

“Inmates have been prioritized for vaccination and are encouraged to get vaccinated.”

The ruling notes that as of Oct. 8, there were 34 active COVID-19 cases among all of Hawaii’s community correctional centers and facilities, and as of Sept. 14, 66% of inmates were fully vaccinated.

It also notes the Sept. 2 settlement of a federal lawsuit filed by several inmates who alleged the Department of Public Safety violated their constitutional rights by failing to implement its own pandemic response plan. The settlement “includes the establishment of a five-member panel of experts to provide advice and recommendations to assist DPS in its pandemic response.”

The high court’s ruling Tuesday did order DPS to comply with Hawaii Revised Statutes section 353-6.2, which requires the department to “conduct reviews of pretrial detainees to reassess whether a detainee should remain in custody or whether new information or a change in circumstances warrants reconsideration of a detainee’s pretrial release or supervision” at least every three months. The law states those findings and recommendations are to be transmitted “to the appropriate court, prosecuting attorney, and defense counsel.”

The court found “there is a dispute as to whether DPS has conducted the periodic reviews and provided the required information.”

“We’re pleased with the result,” said Hawaii County Prosecutor Kelden Waltjen. “Our office will continue to work with the Hawaii Police Department, the Hawaii State Judiciary and the Public Defender’s Office to try to address the COVID pandemic concerns … .”

Waltjen added the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney is working with state and county officials to implement earlier COVID testing and vaccination procedures for pretrial detainees.

As of Monday, Hawaii Community Correctional Center had a population of 262 inmates, 56 above its design capacity of 206 inmates, and 36 above its so called “operational capacity” of 226 inmates.

Of those, 143, or 55%, were pretrial detainees charged with but not convicted of a crime, with 125 facing felony charges and 18 charged with misdemeanors.

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A Tuesday phone call to Keith Shigetomi, supervising deputy of Hilo’s Office of the Public Defender, wasn’t returned in time for this story.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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