Lawmakers consider releasing hundreds of inmates to ease overcrowded jails

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Hundreds of Hawaii inmates could be released from jail to help ease overcrowding issues.

That’s if a bill making its way through the State Legislature becomes law.

House Bill 2391 would give the director of the Department of Public Safety power to release pre-trial or sentenced inmates, along with those who cannot make bail and who commit the lowest level of crimes or misdemeanors.

So what type of inmates could this include, and how many?

We found out the state is close to being threatened or named as a party in a lawsuit based on overcrowded conditions at its jails, so it wants to take a proactive approach to address overcrowding by releasing inmates.

Public safety director Nolan Espinda described the conditions at Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo: “We have over 100 inmates sleeping on the floor with their heads next to the toilet every night, and those are unacceptable conditions for human beings to be incarcerated under.”

Espinda says all of the jails in the state are overcapacity. As of March 7, 2016, the department recorded the following headcounts:

  • Oahu: Capacity 954, Headcount 1,208
  • Maui: Capacity 301, Headcount 472
  • Hawaii: Capacity 226, Headcount 397
  • Kauai: Capacity 128, Headcount 177

To help with those overcrowding issues, Espinda would have the authority to release inmates who are awaiting trial for non-violent offenses or serving time for a misdemeanor.

“Clearly a non-violent crime would be about not paying your tickets, DUI, low-level theft, those types of things,” Espinda said.

KHON2 found out 351 inmates fall into this category, and if this bill passes, would be screened for release.

Even though the state says this bill would help with overcrowding at its jails, some people who oppose the bill believe it would be putting more criminals back on the street.

That’s what Honolulu Police previously testified.

“I understand that. I respect that. I’m a law enforcement official myself,” Espinda said, “but we also have to consider humane conditions for people being incarcerated, but more importantly, how we represent the people of the state of Hawaii and not putting them in a liable situation.”

Honolulu’s Department of the Prosecuting Attorney opposes this bill.

“Our concern and our opposition is that violent offenses is not defined so presumably it’s depending on what public safety defines as violent offense,” said Mark Tom, who works at the department.

Prosecutors are also concerned about the victims, and want them to receive advance notice when an inmate is released.

The House already passed the bill, and it’s now in hands of the Senate. On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate public safety committee postponed decision-making until next week.

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