LIHU‘E — The Hawai’i Office of Public Defenders has petitioned the Hawai’i Supreme Court to release inmates convicted of misdemeanors or of parole technicalities through the use of grants, pardons and reprieves to lower facility population and potentially prevent a community spread of COVID-19.
Kaua’i County Prosecuting Attorney Justin Kollar endorses the OPD’s petition. Last week, his office filed several motions to have low risk inmates removed from the Kaua’i Community Correctional Center for supervised release.
In his own response sent Tuesday to Gov. David Ige, Kollar urged officials to provide emergency releases to low-risk inmates with less than five years on their sentence with underlying health conditions like heart disease or respiratory conditions and those who are over 60.
Kollar’s office reviewed inmate logs at the KCCC and filed nine motions for inmate release. The medium-sized community custody facility has 138 inmates. No inmates have met criteria for COVID-19 in the state, according to the state’s Department of Public Safety.
The OPD petition is signed by the state’s Public Defender James Tabe, Attorney General Clare Connors and prosecuting attorneys across the state, and included a Consent Decree filed by the Supreme Court of New Jersey from earlier this week which granted similar relief.
Tabe noted that attorneys are filing motions seeking new sentencing hearings, but “There simply is not enough time to allow these matters to be addressed through traditional channels,” Tabe wrote.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Kollar said it’s time to reevaluate best public safety practices in these “incredibly difficult circumstances” both for the sake of inmates and facility employees, who are deemed essential workers and go home to their families after each shift.
He also said he would like to continue to identify inmates who can be placed in the watch of family members or probation officers.
On March 17, Kollar, along with the criminal justice nonprofit organization Fair and Joint Prosecution called on officials to reduce inmate population to create a safer confined environment and increase distancing between detainees.
In addition to calling for the release of those convicted of a misdemeanor or a petty misdemeanor, the group called for the release of inmates vulnerable to infection; those who pose no immediate physical threat to the community; those within six months of completing their sentence; those incarcerated due to technical violations of probation or parole; or those being held but cannot afford cash bail.
And earlier this week, the Hawai’i Correctional Systems Oversight Commission Chair Mark Patterson wrote to Gov. David Ige expressing the group’s concern about how COVID-19 can spread through overpopulated correctional facilities as well as for the safety of both inmates and those who work at facilities.
“Medical facilities are inadequate for the population in ‘normal times,’” the letter said. “As such, we are very concerned that our correctional system will be unable to cope with an outbreak of COVID-19. They will be unable to effect any separation among inmates and staff, and unable to medically respond effectively.”
Department of Public Safety’s response to the outbreak
Across the state, all non-essential programming for inmates was temporarily suspended. This includes inmate work furlough passes as well as community service activities sponsored by outside organizations.
With these activities withheld, the Department of Public Safety is allowing for increased phone accessibility by allowing extended phone calls and an unlimited number of prepaid and collect 15-minute person calls. For the next month, inmates will be provided with two free five-minute phone calls per week from GlobalTel Link, the company which provides phone service for inmates.
“In response to the COVID-19 outbreak across the country, the Department of Public Safety has developed a comprehensive response plan consistent with the conditions and environment of our correctional facilities and the communities in which they reside,”
“The well-being of all who live in, work in, and visit our facilities are of the utmost importance to the Department and many measures are in place to prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19,” Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz wrote in an email Tuesday.
Last week, the Department of Public Safety began checking temperature at entry points and asking health screening questions to employees. Volunteers, non-essential program staff and all other visitors excluding attorneys or health care professionals
The Hawaii Paroling Authority has suspended parole hearings for the next two weeks with the hopes to resume in April.
Additionally, Chief Justice Mark E. Recktenwald ordered state courthouses to be closed to the public, except for official court business, through the end of April.
Since the outbreak, Kollar said he’s been focused on talking with colleagues in the state to determine next steps to keep the community safe.
“Best case scenario, we look back a month from now and say we overreacted,” Kollar said. “Take it seriously.”