The Hawaii Supreme Court docket might overturn the COVID-19 order to launch inmates with out bail
The Hawaii Supreme Court on Wednesday restricted the types of inmates who will qualify for a speedy release under a regime designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 in state correctional facilities.
The court also instructed supporters to demonstrate why the rapid release program that started last summer is still needed.
The court said its review of conditions in Hawaii prisons found that the rate of positive COVID-19 cases has stabilized, vaccination of inmates is ongoing, and that tests and other health and safety measures have been taken in the prisons to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
The State Department of Public Safety reported that 1,967 Hawaii inmates tested positive for COVID-19 and nine have died of the respiratory disease since the pandemic began last year.
However, the correctional system has only five active cases, all in the Maui Community Correctional Center, the department said.
The court set up the rapid release program near the peak of the August pandemic and ordered law enforcement officials and lower courts to release many inmates arrested without bail for misdemeanor and minor offenses in an attempt to reduce the crowd in Hawaiian prisons.
Cases of domestic violence for misdemeanors were excluded from this order, which meant that these offenders could continue to be detained along with those arrested for violations of injunctions and safeguards.
Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm publicly opposed the initiative this month, and on Wednesday the court agreed to Alm’s request that the court reconsider and amend last year’s order.
Alm specifically cited the case of 37-year-old Randy Jacob, who was arrested four times in March for allegedly grabbing women’s breasts and buttocks in downtown Honolulu.
Jacob was charged with fourth degree sexual assault in each of these cases, but Alm complained in a March 16 press release that Jacob had been repeatedly released. He was also released after facing separate charges of harassment and theft.
“It is imperative that people like Jacob be taken into custody or given psychological treatment, whichever is appropriate to protect the public,” said Alm.
His office then filed a motion with the Supreme Court on March 17 to remove all offenses falling under a chapter of criminal law entitled “Offenses against the Person” – including sexual assault cases for misdemeanor – from the court’s quick release program offenders are excluded for minors.
The court agreed to Alm in a bilateral ruling on Wednesday morning, stating that minor offenses and misdemeanors such as harassment, fourth-degree sexual assault, and misdemeanors should be excluded from efforts to obtain a speedy release.
Alm welcomed the ruling on Wednesday and said he would now make a brief request to the court to abandon the entire rapid release program.
“Today’s ruling gives the district court judges the discretion to deposit bail and, in some cases, detain those who commit violent crimes against our residents,” Alm said in a statement.
“It also means that those in need of mental health treatment can be placed under the care of the Ministry of Health. The bottom line is that this arrangement will make our roads safer and we thank the court for its swift action, ”he said.
Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilson disagreed with the court’s decision, pointing out that when Jacob appeared in court on March 17 in connection with a fourth-degree sexual assault arrest, the judge would eventually meet him for a mental fitness assessment held on.
In that case, “the court gave no indication that it was unable to exercise sufficient discretion to protect the public,” he said.
Wilson noted that the Supreme Court majority ruled Wednesday that the COVID-19 threat to prison inmates has decreased, but the court has ruled separately that the threat to judges and court officials posed by infected inmates is so serious that the law the inmate to attend has been exposed to -person hearings.
The state Department of Public Safety “failed to fix the persistent overpopulation” at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, and the recent decrease in the number of infections does not warrant a move to end the rapid release program, Wilson wrote.
Defense attorney James Tabe said his office was “very disappointed” with the court’s decision and will file a response.
“We believe the COVID-19 variants along with the CDC continue to pose a real and potentially fatal threat to the coronavirus in our already overcrowded prisons and prisons,” Tabe said in a statement. “The risk of transmission between inmates, prison staff and the surrounding population should be reason enough to continue with the August 27, 2020 court order.”
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