Special Master: inmate early release should be judge’s decision


There will be no massive early release of inmates as a way to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 at jails and prisons. instead, a special master appointed by the Hawaii Supreme Court is recommending that each inmate wanting to be released get permission from a judge.

Initially the State Public Defender had submitted a list of 426 inmates considered eligible for early release. But retired judge Dan Foley, who was appointed special master, recommends that the judge who has been handling each inmate’s case make the decision.

“The judge is the gatekeeper, nobody leaves without that judge saying okay and under what conditions. That’s the way it’s always been, that’s the way it should be,” said Foley.

He told the Special Senate Committee on COVID-19 that steps are already being taken to ease the overcrowded population at jails and prisons. He says 100 inmates from OCCC will be transferred to the Federal Detention Center in Honolulu next week. He says fewer people are also being brought in because bench warrant arrests are being suspended.

“If you didn’t show up to court on any particular day, they issue a bench warrant, they look for you and drag you in. That stopped with the exception of people who may be considered a dangerous offender on the street, so that stopped,” said Foley.

The State Department of Public Safety says the inmate population statewide is down 548 inmates since March 2 because of such efforts. DPS says there are no cases of COVID-19 right now and staff is aware of preventive measures if someone is infected. One lawmaker says, then why not just keep inmates in prison?

“So as long as we try to exercise these good methods and safe methods, it’s probably a safer place than releasing people out to the public if their term is not up,” said Sen. Donna Mercado Kim.

The lieutenant governor says another way to ease the overcrowding is to set up tents or tiny homes that have been used to help the homeless.

“We’re looking at some tiny houses that are 100 feet structures, very little, like we did at Kauhale up in Waimanalo, that could also be done. I’ve asked for a plan to be implemented to bring about 250 of those into the state,” said Lt. Gov. Josh Green.

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