Inmate escapes on the rise but court and crime consequences often lax

Inmate escapes have nearly tripled in Hawaii over the past few years and every time it happens, officials say there will be consequences.

So why are there so many if the punishment is supposedly so stiff? Always Investigating found some surprising breakdowns in the system.

There are dozens of felons who have escaped from prison and work furlough — some of them years ago — who have not had the often-promised escape charges tacked on to their records and sentences. So who is to blame?

It may sound like old news every time we report another jail escape or furlough walkway. It’s almost a weekly pace. The number has nearly tripled in just a few years, from 19 in 2012 to 54 last year and 22 so far this year alone.

This follows a doubling of inmates given work furlough privileges in the same period, and most of the escapes are people in that program.

“They had not shown any signs that they would participate in that kind of activity,” said Nolan Espinda, director of the Department of Public Safety. “Obviously if they had, we would not have put them in the program.”

Espinda points out these rarely take a dangerous turn.

“Less that one percent of them have committed actual crimes,” Espinda said. “Less than six percent of them actually walk away.”

Those one percent of crimes include the kidnapping, drug and law enforcement impersonation crime spree Robert Gibson and Kalai Tavares were arrested for last month when they were supposed to be out on furlough looking for work.

They’re being charged for all those crimes and you’d think for escape as well, but “that is not an escape,” explained Honolulu prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro. “They committed the crime while they were on work furlough, while they were authorized to leave the facility.”

Gibson and Tavares are among several people on the prison department’s escape list who, it turns out, will not be charged with it.

A handful of other cases referred to prosecutors were declined too. Always Investigating merged the prison escape list with every escape case in court through Judiciary records, along with multiple other crime and incarceration databases. We found 44 escapes since 2012, about one third of all getaways, have no escape case at all.

Always Investigating started making calls on each and every one, like the oldest non-charged escape of Daniel Holcombe, who evaded custody for two months in the summer of 2013 on Maui.

“We did not receive any reports from the Maui Police Department but we are able to obtain one today,” said Maui prosecutor John Kim after Always Investigating called to check.

Why wasn’t it sent to prosecutors sooner?

“I know one detective retired that I believe was assigned to the Holcombe case,” Kim said.

That’s not the only case in limbo. Always Investigating found cases across the state stalled just about every step of the way, from corrections workers unresponsive to police, to police not referring cases to prosecutors yet, files found in prosecutors’ offices after we called, some stalled without explanation yet somewhere along the line, and many others where the agencies are debating who is responsible.

Sometimes during all this back and forth, some people are going outright free, including a registered sex offender who didn’t get charged with escape, served his other time and got out.

The prison department says life gets tougher for the inmate regardless of whether the escape gets charged.

“We process them for an escape charge, a misconduct escape charge that stays with them for five years,” Espinda said. “As long as they stay incarcerated, they’re not going to be eligible to even be considered for something of a less-secure nature for the next five years. So the consequences of this internally are dramatic.”

But that’s only for as long as they’re in custody. Just under half of the 129 escapes since 2012 have been convicted for it, and of those, some got probation and most are getting the standard 5-year sentences.

But even those five years are usually not tacked to the end of their other time. Instead, they’re handed out concurrently and judges are giving getting credit for time served. Always Investigating found some who walked out of jail free as soon as a year and a half after their escape.

As for those charged but not yet convicted, about 16 pending cases, some escaped back in 2013.

It’s far from swift justice for some of these cases, but why?

“A lot of times, it’s continued at the request of defense attorneys, not at our request,” Kaneshiro said. “We try to resolve as soon as possible because the sooner we resolve the case, the better it is.”

Always Investigating’s calls on these cases got agencies talking again about the status of stalled escape charges. We’ll follow up to see what happens.

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