The state Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a request for a new round of expedited releases of lower-risk Hawaii prison and jail inmates, noting that the numbers of Covid-19 infections inside facilities has been dropping, and inmates now have the option of being vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Twice before the court ordered state judges to fast-track releases of prisoners who have been locked up for non-violent offenses in an effort to reduce the inmate populations and reduce the spread of Covid-19 inside.

The state Office of the Public Defender filed a request for a third round of releases in late August, but the court rejected that request on Tuesday, noting that about two-thirds of Hawaii inmates had been vaccinated by mid-September.

Oahu Community Correctional Center.
The state Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to order a new round of expedited inmate releases to prevent the spread of Covid-19, noting that most inmates have been vaccinated. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The public defender can always file motions for individual releases, and “the trial courts have full discretion whether to set bail and to impose conditions of release,” according to the ruling.

The high court also observed that a five-member panel has been appointed in a settlement of a separate court case to monitor efforts by the correctional system to follow its Pandemic Response Plan to control the spread of the virus in Hawaii prisons and jails.

Data provided by the state Department of Public Safety shows there were 39 active Covid-19 cases among the inmates in four state correctional facilities on Tuesday, and nine active staff cases. The largest outbreak is at the Hawaii Community Correctional Canter in Hilo, with 24 inmate cases.

Hawaii was holding a total of nearly 4,100 inmates as of Monday in state facilities and in a privately-run prison in Arizona. In all, more than 2,900 inmates have been infected, and the virus has been blamed in at least nine inmate deaths.

The Supreme Court in the same decision ordered the public safety department to comply with a 2019 law passed by the Legislature that requires jail officials to review and report on the circumstances of each pre-trial inmate every 90 days to determine if the inmate should be released.

Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm called the decision “a significant victory for public safety” that allows trial court judges to retain full discretion to set bail, or hold defendants in jail until they go to trial.

“This morning, the Hawaii Supreme Court recognized that the COVID-19 landscape has fundamentally changed,” Alm said in a written statement.

“The widespread availability of vaccines and testing means that inmates are no longer at the kind of risk they faced when the pandemic first started,” he said in the statement. “The risk to the public should these inmates be released far outweighs the risk they face from COVID-19 in jail.”

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