The Hawaii Attorney General and three county prosecutors want to halt reductions in inmate populations, saying the threat to public safety outweighs virus risks as there are no COVID-19 cases in state correctional facilities.

“We do think that it’s time for this effort to stop,” Attorney General Clare Connors said at a hearing of the House Public Safety, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. She pointed out that in the past month or so, 47 people released on Oahu have been rearrested on various charges, including violating the terms of their release.

Connors, county prosecutors, State Public Defender James Tabe and others were invited to discuss the months-long process to thin out the state’s jail and prison populations to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Since early March, more than 800 people have been released and lawmakers say they are concerned.

The attorney general, and the county prosecutors of Hawaii, Honolulu and Maui all say it’s time for the inmate releases to stop.

Attorney General Clare Connors.
Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors told lawmakers Wednesday inmate population relief efforts should stop. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

As the threat of the virus escalated in Hawaii, the state public defender’s office filed two petitions with the Hawaii Supreme Court seeking the release of certain inmates, including some pretrial detainees, felony probationers and those eligible for parole.

But instead of recommending blanket releases, Special Master Dan Foley, a retired judge appointed by the court to oversee the process, suggested that trial judges consider each release case by case. That’s what the Supreme Court ordered. The public defender’s office eventually filed more than 500 motions for release.

The deadline for judges to consider the motions was at the end of April. Since the Supreme Court hasn’t set new deadlines, the process has moved on to a new phase, Foley told lawmakers.

Now, it’s up to the Hawaii Paroling Authority to consider prisoners who would be up for parole anyway, he said. “It’s a very deliberate process,” Foley said.

Acting Prosecutor Dwight Nadamoto announces his run for prosecutor..
Acting Honolulu Prosecutor Dwight Nadamoto says dangerous people are being released because of COVID-19. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Dwight Nadamoto, the acting Honolulu prosecutor, cited cases he thought endangered the public, including a defendant he says has been charged with multiple counts of sexual assault. “These are the type of people who are getting released,” he said.

When those prisoners are brought back to prison, he said they will have to be tested for COVID-19, and asked, “Wouldn’t it be ironic if the guy who got released is the one bringing it in?”

Dennis Dunn, director of the division that helps victims and witnesses at the Honolulu prosecutor’s office, said without proper supervision, inmate releases are an “invitation for recidivism.” He said he has been hearing from victims who don’t believe police and prosecutors can keep them safe anymore because alleged perpetrators are back on the streets.

Tabe argued that inmate population reductions should continue until the COVID-19 threat is over.

“We’re fortunate that it wasn’t introduced into our jails,” he said. “An outbreak there will affect everyone here. If all of a sudden, we got 100 cases, guess where they’re going. They’re going to our local hospitals.”

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