HONOLULU (KHON2) — There is a difference of opinion on how to deal with COVID-19 at jails and prisons. The Office of the Public Defender (OPD) said non-violent offenders should not be arrested, but the Honolulu police chief said that is not viable.

Get news on the go with KHON 2GO, KHON’s morning podcast, every morning at 8

The request from OPD, dated August 13, asked the Honolulu Police Department to use discretion and to scale back on arrests of all misdemeanor offenses and non-violent felonies.

Police Chief Susan Ballard denied that request and said she respectfully disagrees.

Honolulu Deputy Public Defender Jacquelyn Esser said departments in the criminal justice system need to work together to reduce the number of inmates at the Oahu Community Correctional Center amid an outbreak of COVID-19 inside the facility.

“Right now, during this crisis when our jails are grossly overcrowded, we’re in a public health crisis and we’re doing everything. Everyone in the criminal justice system needs to be working together,” Esser said. “We need our police officers to use discretion when to make an arrest, or simply warn or cite.” 

Esser said people who commit low-level offenses are usually released from jail within days. It is during their detention when they may be exposed to COVID-19, and once they are released, they could expose others.

Ballard responded to the Office of the Public Defender with a letter, and she said low-level offenses include trespassing, property damage and theft.

“Under your proposal, a homeowner would receive no assistance from HPD if someone was on their property screaming and yelling at the top of their lungs refusing to leave or if someone was randomly breaking car windows as they walked along the street.”

HPD Chief Ballard

Esser said that is not entirely true.

“That is what is insincere about her response. That is not what the letter asked,” Esser said. “If someone is breaking into someone’s house and is a risk to public safety, that is someone that should be arrested, and that is the discretion we are asking police officers to use.”

The police chief said efforts should also be redirected to the Department of Public Safety to get the outbreak under control.

The latest count of COVID-19 cases shows 239 inmates infected with the virus inside OCCC along with 42 correctional staff members.

Latest Stories on KHON2